Sie sind auf Seite 1von 40

Downloaded from bmj.

com on 1 October 2006 Clinical review

ABC of heart failure

History and epidemiology
R C Davis, F D R Hobbs, G Y H Lip

Heart failure is the end stage of all diseases of the heart and is a
major cause of morbidity and mortality. It is estimated to “The very essence of cardiovascular
practice is the early detection of heart
account for about 5% of admissions to hospital medical wards,
with over 100 000 annual admissions in the United Kingdom. Sir Thomas Lewis, 1933
The overall prevalence of heart failure is 3-20 per 1000
population, although this exceeds 100 per 1000 in those aged
65 years and over. The annual incidence of heart failure is 1-5
per 1000, and the relative incidence doubles for each decade of
life after the age of 45 years. The overall incidence is likely to Some definitions of heart failure
increase in the future, because of both an ageing population “A condition in which the heart fails to discharge its contents
and therapeutic advances in the management of acute adequately” (Thomas Lewis, 1933)
myocardial infarction leading to improved survival in patients “A state in which the heart fails to maintain an adequate circulation
for the needs of the body despite a satisfactory filling pressure”
with impaired cardiac function.
(Paul Wood, 1950)
Unfortunately, heart failure can be difficult to diagnose “A pathophysiological state in which an abnormality of cardiac
clinically, as many features of the condition are not organ function is responsible for the failure of the heart to pump blood
specific, and there may be few clinical features in the early at a rate commensurate with the requirements of the metabolising
stages of the disease. Recent advances have made the early tissues” (E Braunwald, 1980)
recognition of heart failure increasingly important as modern “Heart failure is the state of any heart disease in which, despite
adequate ventricular filling, the heart’s output is decreased or in
drug treatment has the potential to improve symptoms and
which the heart is unable to pump blood at a rate adequate for
quality of life, reduce hospital admission rates, slow the rate of satisfying the requirements of the tissues with function parameters
disease progression, and improve survival. In addition, coronary remaining within normal limits” (H Denolin, H Kuhn, H P
revascularisation and heart valve surgery are now regularly Krayenbuehl, F Loogen, A Reale, 1983)
performed, even in elderly patients. “A clinical syndrome caused by an abnormality of the heart and
recognised by a characteristic pattern of haemodynamic, renal,
neural and hormonal responses” (Philip Poole-Wilson, 1985)
A brief history “[A] syndrome . . . which arises when the heart is chronically unable to
maintain an appropriate blood pressure without support” (Peter
Descriptions of heart failure exist from ancient Egypt, Greece, Harris, 1987)
and India, and the Romans were known to use the foxglove as “A syndrome in which cardiac dysfunction is associated with reduced
exercise tolerance, a high incidence of ventricular arrhythmias and
medicine. Little understanding of the nature of the condition
shortened life expectancy” (Jay Cohn, 1988)
can have existed until William Harvey described the circulation “Abnormal function of the heart causing a limitation of exercise
in 1628. Röntgen’s discovery of x rays and Einthoven’s capacity” or “ventricular dysfunction with symptoms” (anonymous
development of electrocardiography in the 1890s led to and pragmatic)
improvements in the investigation of heart failure. The advent “Symptoms of heart failure, objective evidence of cardiac dysfunction
of echocardiography, cardiac catheterisation, and nuclear and response to treatment directed towards heart failure” (Task
medicine have since improved the diagnosis and investigation Force of the European Society of Cardiology, 1995)
of patients with heart failure.
Blood letting and leeches were used for centuries, and
William Withering published his account of the benefits of
digitalis in 1785. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, heart
failure associated with fluid retention was treated with Southey’s
tubes, which were inserted into oedematous peripheries,
allowing some drainage of fluid.

Southey’s tubes were at one time used for removing fluid from oedematous
peripheries in patients with heart failure

The foxglove was used as a medicine in heart

disease as long ago as Roman times
BMJ VOLUME 320 1 JANUARY 2000 39
Clinical review Downloaded from on 1 October 2006

A brief history of heart failure

1628 William Harvey describes the circulation
1785 William Withering publishes an account of medical
use of digitalis
1819 René Laennec invents the stethoscope
1895 Wilhelm Röntgen discovers x rays
1920 Organomercurial diuretics are first used
1954 Inge Edler and Hellmuth Hertz use ultrasound to
image cardiac structures
1958 Thiazide diuretics are introduced
1967 Christiaan Barnard performs first human heart
1987 CONSENSUS-I study shows unequivocal survival
benefit of angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitors in
severe heart failure
1995 European Society of Cardiology publishes guidelines
for diagnosing heart failure

In 1785 William Withering of Birmingham published

an account of medicinal use of digitalis


Cumulative probability of death

It was not until the 20th century that diuretics were Placebo Enalapril
developed. The early, mercurial agents, however, were 0.7
associated with substantial toxicity, unlike the thiazide diuretics,
which were introduced in the 1950s. Vasodilators were not
widely used until the development of angiotensin converting 0.5
enzyme inhibitors in the 1970s. The landmark CONSENSUS-I 0.4
study (first cooperative north Scandinavian enalapril survival
study), published in 1987, showed the unequivocal survival
benefits of enalapril in patients with severe heart failure. 0.2


Epidemiology 0
0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
Studies of the epidemiology of heart failure have been
complicated by the lack of universal agreement on a definition
Mortality curves from the CONSENSUS-I study
of heart failure, which is primarily a clinical diagnosis. National
and international comparisons have therefore been difficult,
and mortality data, postmortem studies, and hospital admission
rates are not easily translated into incidence and prevalence.
Several different systems have been used in large population
studies, with the use of scores for clinical features determined
from history and examination, and in most cases chest The Framingham heart study has been
radiography, to define heart failure. the most important longitudinal source of
The Task Force on Heart Failure of the European Society of data on the epidemiology of heart failure
Cardiology has recently published guidelines on the diagnosis
of heart failure, which require the presence of symptoms and
objective evidence of cardiac dysfunction. Reversibility of
symptoms on appropriate treatment is also desirable.
Echocardiography is recommended as the most practicable way
of assessing cardiac function, and this investigation has been
used in more recent studies.
In the Framingham heart study a cohort of 5209 subjects Contemporary studies of the epidemiology of heart failure
has been assessed biennially since 1948, with a further cohort in United Kingdom
(their offspring) added in 1971. This uniquely large dataset has
Study Diagnostic criteria
been used to determine the incidence and prevalence of heart
failure, defined with consistent clinical and radiographic criteria. Hillingdon heart failure study Clinical (for example, shortness of
Several recent British studies of the epidemiology of heart (west London) breath, effort intolerance, fluid
retention), radiographic, and
failure and left ventricular dysfunction have been conducted,
including a study of the incidence of heart failure in one west
ECHOES study (West Midlands) Clinical and echocardiographic
London district (Hillingdon heart failure study) and large (ejection fraction < 40%)
prevalence studies in Glasgow (north Glasgow MONICA study) MONICA population Clinical and echocardiographic
and the West Midlands ECHOES (echocardiographic heart of (north Glasgow) (ejection fraction <30%)
England screening) study. It is important to note that
40 BMJ VOLUME 320 1 JANUARY 2000
Downloaded from on 1 October 2006 Clinical review

epidemiological studies of heart failure have used different

Prevalence of heart failure (per 1000 population),
levels of ejection fraction to define systolic dysfunction. The
Framingham heart study
Glasgow study, for example, used an ejection fraction of 30% as
their criteria, whereas most other epidemiological surveys have Age (years) Men Women
used levels of 40-45%. Indeed, prevalence of heart failure seems
50-59 8 8
similar in many different surveys, despite variation in the levels
80-89 66 79
of ejection fraction, and this observation is not entirely
All ages 7.4 7.7

Prevalence of heart failure

During the 1980s the Framingham study reported the age
adjusted overall prevalence of heart failure, with similar rates
for men and women. Prevalence increased dramatically with
increasing age, with an approximate doubling in the prevalence
of heart failure with each decade of ageing.
In Nottinghamshire, the prevalence of heart failure in 1994
Methods of assessing prevalence of heart failure in
was estimated from prescription data for loop diuretics and
published studies
examination of the general practice notes of a sample of these
patients, to determine the number who fulfilled predetermined x Clinical and radiographic assessment
x Echocardiography
criteria for heart failure. The overall prevalence of heart failure
x General practice monitoring
was estimated as 1.0% to 1.6%, rising from 0.1% in the 30-39 x Drug prescription data
age range to 4.2% at 70-79 years. This method, however, may
exclude individuals with mild heart failure and include patients
treated with diuretics who do not have heart failure.

Incidence of heart failure

The Framingham data show an age adjusted annual incidence
of heart failure of 0.14% in women and 0.23% in men. Survival
in the women is generally better than in the men, leading to the
same point prevalence. There is an approximate doubling in the Annual incidence of heart failure (per 1000 population),
incidence of heart failure with each decade of ageing, reaching Framingham heart study
3% in those aged 85-94 years.
Age (years) Men Women
The recent Hillingdon study examined the incidence of
heart failure, defined on the basis of clinical and radiographic 50-59 3 2
findings, with echocardiography, in a population in west 80-89 27 22
London. The overall annual incidence was 0.08%, rising from All ages 2.3 1.4
0.02% at age 45-55 years to 1.2% at age 86 years or over. About
80% of these cases were first diagnosed after acute hospital
admission, with only 20% being identified in general practice
and referred to a dedicated clinic.
The Glasgow group of the MONICA study and the
ECHOES Group have found that coronary artery disease is the
most powerful risk factor for impaired left ventricular function,
either alone or in combination with hypertension. In these
studies hypertension alone did not appear to contribute
The MONICA study is an international
substantially to impairment of left ventricular systolic study conducted under the auspices of
contraction, although the Framingham study did report a more the World Health Organisation to
substantial contribution from hypertension. This apparent monitor trends in and determinants of
difference between the studies may reflect improvements in the mortality from cardiovascular disease
treatment of hypertension and the fact that some patients with
hypertension, but without coronary artery disease, may develop
heart failure as a result of diastolic dysfunction.

Prevalence of left ventricular dysfunction

Large surveys have been carried out in Britain in the 1990s, in
Glasgow and the West Midlands, using echocardiography. Prevalence (%) of left ventricular dysfunction, north Glasgow
In Glasgow the prevalence of significantly impaired left (MONICA survey)
ventricular contraction in subjects aged 25-74 years was 2.9%;
in the West Midlands, the prevalence was 1.8% in subjects aged Asymptomatic Symptomatic
45 and older. Age group
The higher rates in the Scottish study may reflect the high (years) Men Women Men Women
prevalence of ischaemic heart disease, the main precursor of 45-54 4.4 1.2 1.4 1.2
impaired left ventricular function in both studies. The numbers 55-64 3.2 0.0 2.5 2.0
of symptomatic and asymptomatic cases, in both studies, were 65-74 3.2 1.3 3.2 3.6
about the same.
BMJ VOLUME 320 1 JANUARY 2000 41
Clinical review Downloaded from on 1 October 2006

Ethnic differences
Ethnic differences in the incidence of and mortality from heart In the United States mortality from heart
failure have also been reported. In the United States, failure at age <65 years has been reported
African-American men have been reported as having a 33% as being up to 2.5-fold higher in black
greater risk of being admitted to hospital for heart failure than patients than in white patients
white men; the risk for black women was 50%.
A similar picture emerged in a survey of heart failure
among acute medical admissions to a city centre teaching
hospital in Birmingham. The commonest underlying
aetiological factors were coronary heart disease in white
Cost of heart failure
patients, hypertension in black Afro-Caribbean patients, and
coronary heart disease and diabetes in Indo-Asians. Some of % Healthcare % Of costs due
these racial differences may be related to the higher prevalence Country Cost costs to admissions
of hypertension and diabetes in black people and coronary
UK, 1990-1 £360m 1.2 60
artery disease and diabetes mellitus in Indo-Asians.
US, 1989 $9bn 1.5 71
France, 1990 FF11.4bn 1.9 64
Impact on health services New Zealand, 1990 $NZ73m 1.5 68
Sweden, 1996 Kr2.6m 2.0 75
Heart failure accounts for at least 5% of admissions to general
medical and geriatric wards in British hospitals, and admission
rates for heart failure in various European countries (Sweden,
Netherlands, and Scotland) and in the United States have
doubled in the past 10-15 years. Furthermore, heart failure
accounts for over 1% of the total healthcare expenditure in the Key references
United Kingdom, and most of these costs are related to hospital x Clarke KW, Gray D, Hampton JR. Evidence of inadequate
admissions. The cost of heart failure is increasing, with an investigation and treatment of patients with heart failure. Br Heart J
estimated UK expenditure in 1996 of £465m (£556m when the 1994;71:584-7.
x Cowie MR, Mosterd A, Wood DA, Deckers JW, Poole-Wilson PA,
costs of community health services and nursing homes are
Sutton GC, et al. The epidemiology of heart failure. Eur Heart J
included). 1997;18:208-25.
Hospital readmissions and general practice consultations x Cowie MR, Wood DA, Coats AJS, Thompson SG, Poole-Wilson PA,
often occur soon after the diagnosis of heart failure. In elderly Suresh V, et al. Incidence and aetiology of heart failure: a
patients with heart failure, readmission rates range from population-based study. Eur Heart J 1999;20:421-8.
29-47% within 3 to 6 months of the initial hospital discharge. x Dries DL, Exner DV, Gersh BJ, Cooper HA, Carson PE, Domanski
MJ. Racial differences in the outcome of left ventricular dysfunction.
Treating patients with heart failure with angiotensin converting
N Engl J Med 1999;340:609-16.
enzyme inhibitors can reduce the overall cost of treatment x Ho KK, Pinsky JL, Kannel WB, Levy D. The epidemiology of heart
(because of reduced hospital admissions) despite increased drug failure: the Framingham study. J Am Coll Cardiol 1993;22:6-13A.
expenditure and improved long term survival. x Lip GYH, Zarifis J, Beevers DG. Acute admissions with heart failure
to a district general hospital serving a multiracial population. Int J
The pictures of William Withering and of the foxglove are reproduced
with permission from the Fine Art Photographic Library. The box of
Clin Pract 1997;51:223-7.
definitions of heart failure is adapted from Poole-Wilson PA et al, eds x McDonagh TA, Morrison CE, Lawrence A, Ford I, Tunstall-Pedoe H,
(Heart failure. New York: Churchill Livingstone, 1997:270). The table show- McMurray JJV, et al. Symptomatic and asymptomatic left-ventricular
ing the prevalence of left ventricular dysfunction in north Glasgow is systolic dysfunction in an urban population. Lancet 1997;350:829-33.
reproduced with permission from McDonagh TA et al (see key references x The Task Force on Heart Failure of the European Society of
box). The table showing costs of heart failure is adapted from McMurray J Cardiology. Guidelines for the diagnosis of heart failure. Eur Heart J
et al (Br J Med Econ 1993;6:99-110). 1995;16:741-51.
The ABC of heart failure is edited by C R Gibbs, M K Davies, and
G Y H Lip. CRG is research fellow and GYHL is consultant
cardiologist and reader in medicine in the university department of R C Davis is clinical research fellow and F D R Hobbs is professor in
medicine and the department of cardiology, City Hospital, the department of primary care and general practice, University of
Birmingham; MKD is consultant cardiologist in the department of Birmingham.
cardiology, Selly Oak Hospital, Birmingham. The series will be
published as a book in the spring. BMJ 2000;320:39-42

One hundred years ago

The Bogey of Medical Etiquette.

There is a widespread opinion amongst the public that a rule of their property, and we believe that the petty tyranny sometimes
conduct obtains in the medical profession the object of which is exercised is responsible for the opinions upon medical etiquette
to protect the profession and individual members thereof against which are undoubtedly entertained by the laity. But these extreme
the consequences of their ignorance or mistakes. Probably views are not endorsed by any representative body in the medical
opinions differ as to the extent to which we are prepared to go in profession, and we are quite certain that we are expressing the
this direction, and perhaps few believe that we would go so far as general view when we say that the profession recognises no other
to commit perjury or sacrifice human life, but we certainly are rules of medical etiquette than are consistent with the best
supposed to be capable of suppressing the truth in order to avoid interests of our patients and with courtesy and consideration for
exposing the mistakes of a colleague. We admit that there are
our colleagues. (BMJ 1900;i:156)
members of the medical profession who regard their patients as

42 BMJ VOLUME 320 1 JANUARY 2000
Clinical review Downloaded from on 1 October 2006

ABC of heart failure

G Y H Lip, C R Gibbs, D G Beevers

The relative importance of aetiological factors in heart failure is

Causes of heart failure
dependent on the nature of the population being studied, as
Coronary artery disease
coronary artery disease and hypertension are common causes
x Myocardial infarction
of heart failure in Western countries, whereas valvar heart x Ischaemia
disease and nutritional cardiac disease are more common in the
developing world. Epidemiological studies are also dependent
on the clinical criteria and relevant investigations used for
x Dilated (congestive)
diagnosis, as it remains difficult, for example, to distinguish x Hypertrophic/obstructive
whether hypertension is the primary cause of heart failure or x Restrictive—for example, amyloidosis, sarcoidosis,
whether there is also underlying coronary artery disease. haemochromatosis
x Obliterative
Valvar and congenital heart disease
Coronary artery disease and its risk x Mitral valve disease
x Aortic valve disease
factors x Atrial septal defect, ventricular septal defect
Coronary heart disease is the commonest cause of heart failure Arrhythmias
in Western countries. In the studies of left ventricular x Tachycardia
x Bradycardia (complete heart block, the sick sinus
dysfunction (SOLVD) coronary artery disease accounted for
almost 75% of the cases of chronic heart failure in male white x Loss of atrial transport—for example, atrial
patients, although in the Framingham heart study, coronary fibrillation
heart disease accounted for only 46% of cases of heart failure in Alcohol and drugs
men and 27% of chronic heart failure cases in women. x Alcohol
Coronary artery disease and hypertension (either alone or in x Cardiac depressant drugs (â blockers, calcium
combination) were implicated as the cause in over 90% of cases antagonists)
of heart failure in the Framingham study. “High output” failure
Recent studies that have allocated aetiology on the basis of x Anaemia, thyrotoxicosis, arteriovenous fistulae,
non-invasive investigations—such as the Hillingdon heart failure Paget’s disease
study—have identified coronary artery disease as the primary Pericardial disease
aetiology in 36% of cases of heart failure. In the Hillingdon x Constrictive pericarditis
study, however, researchers were not able to identify the x Pericardial effusion
primary aetiology in 34% of cases; this methodological failing Primary right heart failure
has been addressed in the current Bromley heart failure study, x Pulmonary hypertension—for example,
pulmonary embolism, cor pulmonale
which uses coronary angiography as well as historical and
x Tricuspid incompetence
non-invasive findings.
Coronary risk factors, such as smoking and diabetes
mellitus, are also risk markers of the development of heart
failure. Smoking is an independent and strong risk factor for
the development of heart failure in men, although the findings
in women are less consistent.
In the prevention arm of SOLVD diabetes was an
independent risk factor (about twofold) for mortality, the

Epidemiological studies of aetiology of heart failure. Values Relative risks for development of heart failure: 36 year
are percentages follow up in Framingham heart study

Teerlink Framingham Age (years)

et al heart study*
(31 studies Hillingdon Men Women
Aetiology 1989-90) Men Women study
Variable 35-64 65-94 35-64 65-94
Ischaemic 50 59 48 36
Non-ischaemic: 50 41 52 64 Serum cholesterol 1.2 0.9 0.7 0.8
Hypertension 4 70 78 14 ( > 6.3 mmol/l)
Idiopathic 18 0 0 0 Hypertension 4.0 1.9 3.0 1.9
( > 160/95 mm Hg or
Valvar 4 22 31 7
receiving treatment)
Other 10 7 7 10
Glucose intolerance 4.4 2.0 7.7 3.6
“Unknown” 13 0 0 34
Electrocardiographic left
Because of rounding, totals may not equal 100%. ventricular hypertrophy 15.0 4.9 12.8 5.4
*Total exceeds 100% as coronary artery disease and hypertension were not
considered as mutually exclusive causes.
104 BMJ VOLUME 320 8 JANUARY 2000
Downloaded from on 1 October 2006 Clinical review

development of heart failure, and admission to hospital for

heart failure, whereas in the Framingham study diabetes and
left ventricular hypertrophy were the most significant risk
markers of the development of heart failure. Body weight and a
high ratio of total cholesterol concentration to high density
lipoprotein cholesterol concentration are also independent risk
factors for heart failure. Clearly, these risk factors may increase
the risks of heart failure through their effects on coronary
artery disease, although diabetes alone may induce important
structural and functional changes in the myocardium, which
further increase the risk of heart failure.

Hypertension has been associated with an increased risk of
heart failure in several epidemiological studies. In the
Framingham heart study, hypertension was reported as the
cause of heart failure—either alone or in association with other
factors—in over 70% of cases, on the basis of non-invasive
assessment. Other community and hospital based studies,
however, have reported hypertension to be a less common
cause of heart failure, and, indeed, the importance of
hypertension as a cause of heart failure has been declining in
the Framingham cohort since the 1950s. Recent community
based studies that have assessed aetiology using clinical criteria
and relevant non-invasive investigations have reported
hypertension to be the cause of heart failure in 10-20%. Two dimensional echocardiogram (top) and M mode echocardiogram
However, hypertension is probably a more common cause of (bottom) showing left ventricular hypertrophy. A=interventricular
septum; B=posterior left ventricular wall
heart failure in selected patient groups, including females and
black populations (up to a third of cases).
Hypertension predisposes to the development of heart
failure via a number of pathological mechanisms, including left
ventricular hypertrophy. Left ventricular hypertrophy is
associated with left ventricular systolic and diastolic dysfunction Effective blood pressure lowering in
and an increased risk of myocardial infarction, and it patients with hypertension reduces the
predisposes to both atrial and ventricular arrhythmias. risk of heart failure; an overview of trials
Electrocardiographic left ventricular hypertrophy is strongly has estimated that effective
antihypertensive treatment reduces the
correlated with the development of heart failure, as it is
age standardised incidence of heart
associated with a 14-fold increase in the risk of heart failure in failure by up to 50%
those aged 65 years or under.

Cardiomyopathies are defined as the diseases of heart muscle Causes of dilated cardiomyopathy
that are not secondary to coronary disease, hypertension, or Familial
congenital, valvar, or pericardial disease. As primary diseases of Infectious
heart muscle, cardiomyopathies are less common causes of x Viral (coxsackie B, cytomegalovirus, HIV)
heart failure, but awareness of their existence is necessary to x Rickettsia
make a diagnosis. Cardiomyopathies are separated into four x Bacteria (diphtheria)
functional categories: dilated (congestive), hypertrophic, x Mycobacteria
restrictive, and obliterative. These groups can include rare, x Fungus
x Parasites (Chagas’ disease, toxoplasmosis)
specific heart muscle diseases (such as haemochromatosis (iron
x Alcohol
overload) and metabolic and endocrine disease), in which x Cardiotoxic drugs (adriamycin, doxorubicin, zidovudine)
cardiac involvement occurs as part of a systemic disorder. x Cocaine
Dilated cardiomyopathy is a more common cause of heart x Metals (cobalt, mercury, lead)
failure than hypertrophic and restrictive cardiomyopathies; x Nutritional disease (beriberi, kwashiorkor, pellagra)
obliterative cardiomyopathy is essentially limited to developing x Endocrine disease (myxoedema, thyrotoxicosis, acromegaly,
Collagen disease
Dilated cardiomyopathy
x Connective tissue diseases (systemic lupus erythematosus,
Dilated cardiomyopathy describes heart muscle disease in scleroderma, polyarteritis nodosa)
which the predominant abnormality is dilatation of the left
ventricle, with or without right ventricular dilatation. Myocardial x Duchenne muscular dystrophy, myotonic dystrophy
cells are also hypertrophied, with increased variation in size and
increased extracellular fibrosis. Family studies have reported
BMJ VOLUME 320 8 JANUARY 2000 105
Clinical review Downloaded from on 1 October 2006

that up to a quarter of cases of dilated cardiomyopathy have a

familial basis. Viral myocarditis is a recognised cause; connective
tissue diseases such as systemic lupus erythematosus, the
Churg-Strauss syndrome, and polyarteritis nodosa are rarer
causes. Idiopathic dilated cardiomyopathy is a diagnosis of
exclusion. Coronary angiography will exclude coronary disease,
and an endomyocardial biopsy is required to exclude
underlying myocarditis or an infiltrative disease.
Dilatation can be associated with the development of atrial
and ventricular arrhythmias, and dilatation of the ventricles
leads to “functional” mitral and tricuspid valve regurgitation.

Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy
Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy has a familial inheritance
(autosomal dominant), although sporadic cases may occur. It is
characterised by abnormalities of the myocardial fibres, and in
its classic form involves asymmetrical septal hypertrophy, which
may be associated with aortic outflow obstruction (hypertrophic
obstructive cardiomyopathy).
Nevertheless, other forms of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy
exist—apical hypertrophy (especially in Japan) and symmetrical
left ventricular hypertrophy (where the echocardiographic
distinction between this and hypertensive heart disease may be
unclear). These abnormalities lead to poor left ventricular
compliance, with high end diastolic pressures, and there is a
common association with atrial and ventricular arrhythmias, the
latter leading to sudden cardiac death. Mitral regurgitation may Two dimensional (long axis parasternal view) echocardiogram (top) and
contribute to the heart failure in these patients. M mode echocardiogram (bottom) showing severely impaired left ventricular
function in dilated cardiomyopathy

Restrictive and obliterative cardiomyopathies

Restrictive cardiomyopathy is characterised by a stiff and poorly
compliant ventricle, which is not substantially enlarged, and this
is associated with abnormalities of diastolic function (relaxation)
that limit ventricular filling. Amyloidosis and other infiltrative
diseases, including sarcoidosis and haemochromatosis, can
cause a restrictive syndrome. Endomyocardial fibrosis is also a
cause of restrictive cardiomyopathy, although it is a rare cause
of heart failure in Western countries. Endocardial fibrosis of the
inflow tract of one or both ventricles, including the subvalvar
regions, results in restriction of diastolic filling and cavity

Valvar disease
Two dimensional, apical, four chamber echocardiogram
Rheumatic heart disease may have declined in certain parts of showing dilated cardiomyopathy. A=left ventricle; B=left
the world, but it still represents an important cause of heart atrium; C=right atrium; D=right ventricle
failure in India and other developing nations. In the
Framingham study rheumatic heart disease accounted for heart
failure in 2% of men and 3% of women, although the overall
incidence of valvar disease has been steadily decreasing in the
Framingham cohort over the past 30 years.
Mitral regurgitation and aortic stenosis are the most
common causes of heart failure, secondary to valvar disease.
Mitral regurgitation (and aortic regurgitation) leads to volume
overload (increased preload), in contrast with aortic stenosis,
which leads to pressure overload (increased afterload). The
progression of heart failure in patients with valvar disease is
dependent on the nature and extent of the valvar disease. In
aortic stenosis heart failure develops at a relatively late stage
and, without valve replacement, it is associated with a poor
prognosis. In contrast, patients with chronic mitral (or aortic)
regurgitation generally decline in a slower and more Colour Doppler echocardiograms showing mitral regurgitation (left) and
progressive manner. aortic regurgitation (right)
106 BMJ VOLUME 320 8 JANUARY 2000
Downloaded from on 1 October 2006 Clinical review

Arrhythmias and heart failure: mechanisms
Cardiac arrhythmias are more common in patients with heart Tachycardias
failure and associated structural heart disease, including x Reduce diastolic ventricular filling time
hypertensive patients with left ventricular hypertrophy. Atrial x Increase myocardial workload and myocardial oxygen demand,
fibrillation and heart failure often coexist, and this has been precipitating ischaemia
confirmed in large scale trials and smaller hospital based x If they are chronic, with poor rate control, they may lead to
ventricular dilatation and impaired ventricular function
studies. In the Hillingdon heart failure study 30% of patients
(“tachycardia induced cardiomyopathy”)
presenting for the first time with heart failure had atrial
fibrillation, and over 60% of patients admitted urgently with x Compensatory increase in stroke volume is limited in the presence
atrial fibrillation to a Glasgow hospital had echocardiographic of structural heart disease, and cardiac output is reduced
evidence of impaired left ventricular function. Abnormal atrial and ventricular contraction
Atrial fibrillation in patients with heart failure has been x Loss of atrial systole leads to the absence of active ventricular filling,
associated with increased mortality in some studies, although which in turn lowers cardiac output and raises atrial pressure—for
the vasodilator heart failure trial (V-HeFT) failed to show an example, atrial fibrillation
x Dissociation of atrial and ventricular activity impairs diastolic
increase in major morbidity or mortality for patients with atrial
ventricular filling, particularly in the presence of a tachycardia—for
fibrillation. In the stroke prevention in atrial fibrillation (SPAF) example, ventricular tachycardia
study, the presence of concomitant heart failure or left
ventricular dysfunction increased the risk of stroke and
thromboembolism in patients with atrial fibrillation. Ventricular
arrhythmias are also more common in heart failure, leading to Prevalence (%) of atrial fibrillation in major heart failure
a sudden deterioration in some patients; such arrhythmias are a trials
major cause of sudden death in patients with heart failure.
Prevalence of
Trial NYHA class* atrial fibrillation
Alcohol and drugs
Alcohol has a direct toxic effect on the heart, which may lead to V-HeFT I II–III 15
acute heart failure or heart failure as a result of arrhythmias, V-HeFT II II–III 15
commonly atrial fibrillation. Excessive chronic alcohol CONSENSUS III–IV 50
consumption also leads to dilated cardiomyopathy (alcoholic
heart muscle disease). Alcohol is the identifiable cause of CONSENSUS = cooperative north Scandinavian enalapril survival study.
*Classification of the New York Heart Association.
chronic heart failure in 2-3% of cases. Rarely, alcohol misuse
may be associated with general nutritional deficiency and
thiamine deficiency (beriberi).
Chemotherapeutic agents (for example, doxorubicin) and I aVR V1 V4
antiviral drugs (for example, zidovudine) have been implicated
in heart failure, through direct toxic effects on the myocardium.
II aVL V2 V5

Other causes
Infections may precipitate heart failure as a result of the toxic
metabolic effects (relative hypoxia, acid base disturbance) in
combination with peripheral vasodilation and tachycardia, II
leading to increased myocardial oxygen demand. Patients with
chronic heart failure, like patients with most chronic illnesses,
are particularly susceptible to viral and bacterial respiratory
infections. “High output” heart failure is most often seen in
Electrocardiogram showing atrial fibrillation with a rapid ventricular response
patients with severe anaemia, although thyrotoxicosis may also
be a precipitating cause in these patients. Myxoedema may
present with heart failure as a result of myocardial involvement
Key references
or secondary to a pericardial effusion.
x Cowie MR, Wood DA, Coats AJS, Thompson SG, Poole-Wilson PA,
The table of epidemiological studies of the aetiology of heart failure is
adapted and reproduced with permission from Cowie MR et al (Eur Heart J
Suresh V, et al. Incidence and aetiology of heart failure: a
1997;18:208-25). The table showing relative risks for development of heart population-based study. Eur Heart J 1999;20:421-8.
failure (36 year follow up) is adapted and reproduced with permission from x Eriksson H, Svardsudd K, Larsson B, Ohlson LO, Tibblin G, Welin
Kannel WB et al (Br Heart J 1994;72:S3-9). L, et al. Risk factors for heart failure in the general population: the
study of men born in 1913. Eur Heart J 1989;10:647-56.
D G Beevers is professor of medicine in the university department of x Levy D, Larson MG, Vasan RS, Kannel WB, Ho KKL. The
medicine and the department of cardiology, City Hospital, progression from hypertension to congestive heart failure. JAMA
Birmingham. 1996;275:1557-62.
The ABC of heart failure is edited by C R Gibbs, M K Davies, and x Oakley C. Aetiology, diagnosis, investigation, and management of
G Y H Lip. CRG is research fellow and GYHL is consultant cardiomyopathies. BMJ 1997;315:1520-4.
cardiologist and reader in medicine in the university department of x Teerlink JR, Goldhaber SZ, Pfeffer MA. An overview of
medicine and the department of cardiology, City Hospital, contemporary etiologies of congestive heart failure. Am Heart J
Birmingham; MKD is consultant cardiologist in the department of
x Wheeldon NM, MacDonald TM, Flucker CJ, McKendrick AD,
cardiology, Selly Oak Hospital, Birmingham. The series will be
McDevitt DG, Struthers AD. Echocardiography in chronic heart
published as a book in the spring.
failure in the community. Q J Med 1993;86:17-23.
BMJ 2000;320:104-7
BMJ VOLUME 320 8 JANUARY 2000 107
Downloaded from on 1 October 2006 Clinical review

ABC of heart failure

G Jackson, C R Gibbs, M K Davies, G Y H Lip

Heart failure is a multisystem disorder which is characterised by

Developments in our understanding of
abnormalities of cardiac, skeletal muscle, and renal function; the pathophysiology of heart failure have
stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system; and a complex been essential for recent therapeutic
pattern of neurohormonal changes. advances in this area

Myocardial systolic dysfunction

The primary abnormality in non-valvar heart failure is an
impairment in left ventricular function, leading to a fall in
cardiac output. The fall in cardiac output leads to activation of Poor ventricular function/myocardial damage
several neurohormonal compensatory mechanisms aimed at (eg post myocardial infarction, dilated cardiomyopathy)
improving the mechanical environment of the heart. Activation
of the sympathetic system, for example, tries to maintain cardiac
Heart failure
output with an increase in heart rate, increased myocardial
contractility, and peripheral vasoconstriction (increased
catecholamines). Activation of the renin-angiotensin- Decreased stroke volume and cardiac output
aldosterone system (RAAS) also results in vasoconstriction
(angiotensin) and an increase in blood volume, with retention
of salt and water (aldosterone). Concentrations of vasopressin Neurohormonal response
and natriuretic peptides increase. Furthermore, there may be
progressive cardiac dilatation or alterations in cardiac structure Activation of sympathetic system Renin angiotensin aldosterone system
(remodelling), or both.

• Vasoconstriction: increased sympathetic tone, angiotensin II, endothelins,

Neurohormonal activation impaired nitric oxide release
• Sodium and fluid retention: increased vasopressin and aldosterone
Chronic heart failure is associated with neurohormonal
activation and alterations in autonomic control. Although these Further stress on ventricular wall and dilatation (remodelling)
compensatory neurohormonal mechanisms provide valuable leading to worsening of ventricular function
support for the heart in normal physiological circumstances,
they also have a fundamental role in the development and
subsequent progression of chronic heart failure. Further heart failure

Renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system Neurohormonal mechanisms and compensatory mechanisms in heart

Stimulation of the renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system leads
to increased concentrations of renin, plasma angiotensin II, and
aldosterone. Angiotensin II is a potent vasoconstrictor of the
renal (efferent arterioles) and systemic circulation, where it
stimulates release of noradrenaline from sympathetic nerve
terminals, inhibits vagal tone, and promotes the release of Liver Vessels Brain
aldosterone. This leads to the retention of sodium and water
and the increased excretion of potassium. In addition,
angiotensin II has important effects on cardiac myocytes and
Renin substrate (angiotensinogen)
may contribute to the endothelial dysfunction that is observed
in chronic heart failure. Renin

Sympathetic nervous system Angiotensin I

The sympathetic nervous system is activated in heart failure, via Angiotensin converting enzyme
low and high pressure baroreceptors, as an early compensatory (lungs and vasculature)
mechanism which provides inotropic support and maintains Angiotensin II
cardiac output. Chronic sympathetic activation, however, has
deleterious effects, causing a further deterioration in cardiac
Vasoconstriction Aldosterone release Enhanced sympathetic activity
The earliest increase in sympathetic activity is detected in
the heart, and this seems to precede the increase in sympathetic
outflow to skeletal muscle and the kidneys that is present in
advanced heart failure. Sustained sympathetic stimulation Salt and water retention
activates the renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system and other
neurohormones, leading to increased venous and arterial tone Renin-angiotensin-aldosterone axis in heart failure
BMJ VOLUME 320 15 JANUARY 2000 167
Clinical review Downloaded from on 1 October 2006

(and greater preload and afterload respectively), increased

Myocardial damage
plasma noradrenaline concentrations, progressive retention of
salt and water, and oedema. Excessive sympathetic activity is
also associated with cardiac myocyte apoptosis, hypertrophy, Activation of sympathetic nervous system
and focal myocardial necrosis.
In the long term, the ability of the myocardium to respond
to chronic high concentrations of catecholamines is attenuated Renin-angiotensin Vasoconstriction Increased heart rate Direct
by a down regulation in â receptors, although this may be system and contractility cardiotoxicity
associated with baroreceptor dysfunction and a further increase
in sympathetic activity. Indeed, abnormalities of baroreceptor Fluid retention Increased wall stress
function are well documented in chronic heart failure, along
with reduced parasympathetic tone, leading to abnormal
autonomic modulation of the sinus node. Moreover, a reduction Increased myocardial oxygen demand
in heart rate variability has consistently been observed in
chronic heart failure, as a result of predominantly sympathetic Myocardial hypertrophy Decreased contractility Myocyte damage
and reduced vagal modulation of the sinus node, which may be
a prognostic marker in patients with chronic heart failure. Sympathetic activation in chronic heart failure

Natriuretic peptides Concentrations of plasma norepinephrine

There are three natriuretic peptides, of similar structure, and

Cumulative mortality (%)

these exert a wide range of effects on the heart, kidneys, and 90
>5.32 nmol/l
>3.55 nmol/l and <5.32 nmol/l
central nervous system. 80 <3.55 nmol/l
Atrial natriuretic peptide (ANP) is released from the atria in
response to stretch, leading to natriuresis and vasodilatation. In
humans, brain natriuretic peptide (BNP) is also released from
the heart, predominantly from the ventricles, and its actions are 50

similar to those of atrial natriuretic peptide. C-type natriuretic 40

peptide is limited to the vascular endothelium and central 30
nervous system and has only limited effects on natriuresis and 2 year P<0.0001
vasodilatation. Overall P<0.0001
The atrial and brain natriuretic peptides increase in
response to volume expansion and pressure overload of the 0 6 12 18 24 30 36 42 48 54 60
heart and act as physiological antagonists to the effects of Months
angiotensin II on vascular tone, aldosterone secretion, and
renal-tubule sodium reabsorption. As the natriuretic peptides Norepinephrine concentrations and prognosis in chronic heart failure
are important mediators, with increased circulating
concentrations in patients with heart failure, interest has
Stretch or increase in cardiac
developed in both the diagnostic and prognostic potential of chamber volume leads to release
these peptides. Substantial interest has been expressed about of natriuretic peptides
the therapeutic potential of natriuretic peptides, particularly Atrium
with the development of agents that inhibit the enzyme that
metabolises atrial natriuretic peptide (neutral endopeptidase),
and non-peptide agonists for the A and B receptors.
Atrial N-terminal
natriuretic atrial
Antidiuretic hormone (vasopressin) peptide natriuretic
Brain natriuretic
Antidiuretic hormone concentrations are also increased in peptide
severe chronic heart failure. High concentrations of the
hormone are particularly common in patients receiving diuretic
treatment, and this may contribute to the development of Vasodilatation
hyponatraemia. Increased urinary sodium excretion

Effects of natriuretic peptides

Endothelin is secreted by vascular endothelial cells and is a
potent vasoconstrictor peptide that has pronounced Other hormonal mechanisms in chronic heart failure
vasoconstrictor effects on the renal vasculature, promoting the x The arachidonic acid cascade leads to increased concentrations of
retention of sodium. Importantly, the plasma concentration of prostaglandins (prostaglandin E2 and prostaglandin I2), which
endothelin-1 is of prognostic significance and is increased in protect the glomerular microcirculation during renal
vasoconstriction and maintain glomerular filtration by dilating
proportion to the symptomatic and haemodynamic severity of
afferent glomerular arterioles
heart failure. Endothelin concentration is also correlated with x The kallikrein kinin system forms bradykinin, resulting in both
indices of severity such as the pulmonary artery capillary wedge natriuresis and vasodilatation, and stimulates the production of
pressure, need for admission to hospital, and death. prostaglandins
In view of the vasoconstrictor properties of endothelin, x Circulating concentrations of the cytokine tumour necrosis factor
interest has developed in endothelin receptor antagonists as (áTNF) are increased in cachectic patients with chronic heart
failure. áTNF has also been implicated in the development of
cardioprotective agents which inhibit endothelin mediated
endothelial abnormalities in patients with chronic heart failure
vascular and myocardial remodelling.
168 BMJ VOLUME 320 15 JANUARY 2000
Downloaded from on 1 October 2006 Clinical review

Patterns of neurohormonal activation After myocardial infarction

and prognosis x Plasma noradrenaline is of prognostic value in patients early after
myocardial infarction, predicting subsequent changes in left
Asymptomatic left ventricular dysfunction ventricular volume
Plasma norepinephrine concentrations increase early in the x Natriuretic peptides have also been shown to predict outcome after
development of left ventricular dysfunction, and plasma renin myocardial infarction, although it is not clear whether the predictive
activity usually increases in patients receiving diuretic treatment. value is additive to measurements of ventricular function
Norepinephrine concentration in asymptomatic left ventricular
dysfunction is a strong and independent predictor of the
development of symptomatic chronic heart failure and long
term mortality. Plasma concentrations of N-terminal proatrial
natriuretic peptide and brain natriuretic peptide also seem to be Myocardial or
good indicators of asymptomatic left ventricular dysfunction valvar damage
and may be useful in the future as an objective blood test in Arrhythmias
these patients.
+ Ventricular
Congestive heart failure
In severe untreated chronic heart failure, concentrations of Cardiac
renin, angiotensin II, aldosterone, noradrenaline, and atrial Left ventricular output
natriuretic peptide are all increased. Plasma concentrations of afterload
various neuroendocrine markers correlate with both the
severity of heart failure and the long term prognosis. For Activation of
example, raised plasma concentrations of N-terminal and neurohormonal
C-terminal atrial natriuretic peptide and of brain natriuretic Vascular
peptide are independent predictors of mortality in patients with resistance plus
chronic heart failure. Patients with congestive heart failure and sodium retention – Angiotensin converting
enzyme inhibitors
raised plasma noradrenaline concentrations also have a worse
Effect of angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitors in heart failure

Other non-cardiac abnormalities in

chronic heart failure
The vascular endothelium has an important role in the
regulation of vascular tone, releasing relaxing and contracting
factors under basal conditions or during exercise. The increased
peripheral resistance in patients with chronic heart failure is
related to the alterations in autonomic control, including
heightened sympathetic tone, activation of the
renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system, increased endothelin
concentrations, and impaired release of endothelium derived
relaxing factor (or nitric oxide). There is emerging evidence that
impaired endothelial function in chronic heart failure may be Contrast left ventriculogram in patient with poor systolic function (diastolic
(left) and systolic (right) views)
improved with exercise training and drug treatment, such as
angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitors.

Skeletal muscle changes

Considerable peripheral changes occur in the skeletal muscle of
patients with chronic heart failure. These include a reduction in
muscle mass and abnormalities in muscle structure,
metabolism, and function. There is also reduced blood flow to
active skeletal muscle, which is related to vasoconstriction and
the loss in muscle mass. All these abnormalities in skeletal
muscles, including respiratory muscles, contribute to the
symptoms of fatigue, lethargy, and exercise intolerance that
occur in chronic heart failure.

Diastolic dysfunction
Diastolic dysfunction results from impaired myocardial
relaxation, with increased stiffness in the ventricular wall and
reduced left ventricular compliance, leading to impairment of
diastolic ventricular filling. Infiltrations, such as amyloid heart Two dimensional echocardiogram in patient with hypertrophic
disease, are the best examples, although coronary artery cardiomyopathy showing asymmetrical septal hypertrophy
BMJ VOLUME 320 15 JANUARY 2000 169
Clinical review Downloaded from on 1 October 2006

disease, hypertension (with left ventricular hypertrophy), and

hypertrophic cardiomyopathy are more common causes.
The incidence and contribution of diastolic dysfunction
remains controversial, although it has been estimated that
30-40% of patients with heart failure have normal ventricular
systolic contraction. Indices of diastolic dysfunction can be
obtained non-invasively with Doppler echocardiography or
invasively with cardiac catheterisation and measurement of left
ventricular pressure changes. There is no agreement as to the
most accurate index of left ventricular diastolic dysfunction, but
the Doppler mitral inflow velocity profile is probably the most Contrast left ventriculogram in patient with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy
widely used. (diastolic (left) and systolic (right) views)
Although pure forms exist, in most patients with heart
failure both systolic and diastolic dysfunction can be present.
Knowing about diastolic dysfunction, however, has little effect
on management of most patients with chronic heart failure, as

Risk of heart failure

there are still many uncertainties over its measurement and
optimal management strategies.

Acute myocardial
Myocardial remodelling, hibernation, infarction

and stunning
After extensive myocardial infarction, cardiac contractility is
frequently impaired and neurohormonal activation leads to
regional eccentric and concentric hypertrophy of the
non-infarcted segment, with expansion (regional thinning and Age
dilatation) of the infarct zone. This is known as remodelling.
Risk of heart failure and relation with age and history of myocardial
Particular risk factors for this development of progressive infarction
ventricular dilatation after a myocardial infarction include a
large infarct, anterior infarctions, occlusion (or non-reperfusion)
of the artery related to the infarct, and hypertension.
Myocardial dysfunction may also occur in response to
“stunning” (postischaemic dysfunction), which describes delayed Myocardial infarction
recovery of myocardial function despite restoration of coronary
blood flow, in the absence of irreversible damage. This is in
Reduced systolic function
contrast to “hibernating” myocardium, which describes
persistent myocardial dysfunction at rest, secondary to reduced
myocardial perfusion, although cardiac myocytes remain viable Increased left ventricular end Neurohormonal
and myocardial contraction may improve with revascularisation. diastolic volume and pressure activation
When stunning or hibernation occurs, viable myocardium
retains responsiveness to inotropic stimulation, which can then
be identified by resting and stress echocardiography, thallium Increased wall stress
scintigraphy and positron emission tomography.
Revascularisation may improve the overall left ventricular
Non-infarcted segment: Infarcted segment: Increased cardiac
function with potential beneficial effects on symptoms and
regional hypertrophy infarct expansion output

Heart failure
Key references
x Grossman W. Diastolic dysfunction in congestive heart failure.
N Engl J Med 1991;325:1557-64. Death
x Love MP, McMurray JJV. Endothelin in heart failure: a promising
therapeutic target. Heart 1997;77:93-4.
Process of ventricular remodelling
x McDonagh TA, Robb SD, Murdoch DR, Morton JJ, Ford I, Morrison
CE, et al. Biochemical detection of left ventricular systolic
dysfunction. Lancet 1998;351:9-13.
x Rahimtoola SH. The hibernating myocardium. Am Heart J
1989;117:211-21. G Jackson is consultant cardiologist in the department of cardiology,
x Wilkins MR, Redondo J, Brown LA. The natriuretic-peptide family. Guy’s and St Thomas’s Hospital, London.
Lancet 1997;349:1307-10.
The ABC of heart failure is edited by C R Gibbs, M K Davies, and
x Packer M. The neurohormonal hypothesis: a theory to explain the G Y H Lip. CRG is research fellow and GYHL is consultant
mechanisms of disease progression in heart failure. J Am Coll cardiologist and reader in medicine in the university department of
Cardiol 1992;20:248-54. medicine and the department of cardiology, City Hospital,
Birmingham; MKD is consultant cardiologist in the department of
cardiology, Selly Oak Hospital, Birmingham. The series will be
The graph showing mortality curves is adapted from Cohn et al (N Engl J published as a book in the spring.
Med 1984;311:819-23); the diagram of the process of ventricular
remodelling is adapted from McKay et al (Circulation 1986;74:693-702). BMJ 2000;320:167-70
170 BMJ VOLUME 320 15 JANUARY 2000
Clinical review Downloaded from on 1 October 2006

ABC of heart failure

Clinical features and complications
R D S Watson, C R Gibbs, G Y H Lip

Clinical features
Patients with heart failure present with a variety of symptoms,
most of which are non-specific. The common symptoms of Symptoms and signs in heart failure
congestive heart failure include fatigue, dyspnoea, swollen Symptoms
ankles, and exercise intolerance, or symptoms that relate to the Dyspnoea
underlying cause. The accuracy of diagnosis by presenting Orthopnoea
Paroxysmal nocturnal dyspnoea
clinical features alone, however, is often inadequate, particularly
Reduced exercise tolerance, lethargy, fatigue
in women and elderly or obese patients. Nocturnal cough
Symptoms Ankle swelling
Dyspnoea Anorexia
Exertional breathlessness is a frequent presenting symptom in Signs
heart failure, although it is a common symptom in the general Cachexia and muscle wasting
population, particularly in patients with pulmonary disease. Tachycardia
Pulsus alternans
Dyspnoea is therefore moderately sensitive, but poorly specific,
Elevated jugular venous pressure
for the presence of heart failure. Orthopnoea is a more specific Displaced apex beat
symptom, although it has a low sensitivity and therefore has Right ventricular heave
little predictive value. Paroxysmal nocturnal dyspnoea results Crepitations or wheeze
from increased left ventricular filling pressures (due to Third heart sound
nocturnal fluid redistribution and enhanced renal reabsorption) Oedema
Hepatomegaly (tender)
and therefore has a greater sensitivity and predictive value.
Nocturnal ischaemic chest pain may also be a manifestation of
heart failure, so left ventricular systolic dysfunction should be
excluded in patients with recurrent nocturnal angina.

Fatigue and lethargy Common causes of lower limb oedema

Fatigue and lethargy in chronic heart failure are, in part, related x Gravitational disorder—for example, immobility
to abnormalities in skeletal muscle, with premature muscle x Congestive heart failure
lactate release, impaired muscle blood flow, deficient endothelial x Venous thrombosis or obstruction, varicose veins
function, and abnormalities in skeletal muscle structure and x Hypoproteinaemia—for example, nephrotic syndrome, liver disease
x Lymphatic obstruction
function. Reduced cerebral blood flow, when accompanied by
abnormal sleep patterns, may occasionally lead to somnolence
and confusion in severe chronic heart failure.

Oedema Sensitivity, specificity, and predictive value of symptoms,

Swelling of ankles and feet is another common presenting signs, and chest x ray findings for presence of heart failure
feature, although there are numerous non-cardiac causes of this (ejection fraction <40%) in 1306 patients with coronary
symptom. Right heart failure may manifest as oedema, right artery disease undergoing cardiac catheterisation
hypochondrial pain (liver distension), abdominal swelling
(ascites), loss of appetite, and, rarely, malabsorption (bowel
Sensitivity Specificity predictive
oedema). An increase in weight may be associated with fluid Clinical features (%) (%) value (%)
retention, although cardiac cachexia and weight loss are
important markers of disease severity in some patients. History:
Shortness of breath 66 52 23
Physical signs Orthopnoea 21 81 2
Physical examination has serious limitations as many patients, Paroxysmal nocturnal
particularly those with less severe heart failure, have few dyspnoea 33 76 26
abnormal signs. In addition, some physical signs are difficult to History of oedema 23 80 22
interpret and, if present, may occasionally be related to causes Examination:
other than heart failure. Tachycardia ( > 100
beats/min) 7 99 6
Oedema and a tachycardia, for example, are too insensitive
Crepitations 13 91 27
to have any useful predictive value, and although pulmonary
Oedema (on
crepitations may have a high diagnostic specificity they have a
examination) 10 93 3
low sensitivity and predictive value. Indeed, the commonest
Gallop (S3) 31 95 61
cause of lower limb oedema in elderly people is immobility, and
Neck vein distension 10 97 2
pulmonary crepitations may reflect poor ventilation with
Chest x ray examination:
infection, or pulmonary fibrosis, rather than heart failure.
Cardiomegaly 62 67 32
Jugular venous distension has a high specificity in diagnosing
236 BMJ VOLUME 320 22 JANUARY 2000
Downloaded from on 1 October 2006 Clinical review

heart failure in patients who are known to have cardiac disease,

although some patients, even with documented heart failure, do
not have an elevated venous pressure. The presence of a
displaced apex beat in a patient with a history of myocardial
infarction has a high positive predictive value. A third heart
sound has a relatively high specificity, although its universal
value is limited by a high interobserver variability, with
interobserver agreement of less than 50% in non-specialists.
In patients with pre-existing chronic heart failure, other
clinical features may be evident that point towards precipitating
causes of acute heart failure or deteriorating heart failure.
Common factors that may be obvious on clinical assessment
and are associated with relapses in congestive heart failure
include infections, arrhythmias, continued or recurrent
myocardial ischaemia, and anaemia.

Clinical diagnosis and clinical scoring systems

Several epidemiological studies, including the Framingham Gross oedema of ankles,
including bullae with serous
heart study, have used clinical scoring systems to define heart exudate
failure, although the use of these systems is not recommended
for routine clinical practice.
In a patient with appropriate symptoms and a number of
physical signs, including a displaced apex beat, elevated venous
pressure, oedema, and a third heart sound, the clinical diagnosis Precipitating causes of heart failure
of heart failure may be made with some confidence. However, x Arrhythmias, especially atrial fibrillation
the clinical suspicion of heart failure should also be confirmed x Infections (especially pneumonia)
x Acute myocardial infarction
with objective investigations and the demonstration of cardiac
x Angina pectoris or recurrent myocardial ischaemia
dysfunction at rest. It is important to note that, in some patients, x Anaemia
exercise-induced myocardial ischaemia may lead to a rise in x Alcohol excess
ventricular filling pressures and a fall in cardiac output, leading x Iatrogenic cause—for example, postoperative fluid replacement or
to symptoms of heart failure during exertion. administration of steroids or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs
x Poor drug compliance, especially in antihypertensive treatment
x Thyroid disorders—for example, thyrotoxicosis
Classification x Pulmonary embolism
x Pregnancy
Symptoms and exercise capacity are used to classify the severity
of heart failure and monitor the response to treatment. The
classification of the New York Heart Association (NYHA) is
used widely, although outcome in heart failure is best European Society of Cardiology’s guidelines for diagnosis of
determined not only by symptoms (NYHA class) but also by heart failure
echocardiographic criteria. As the disease is progressive, the
Essential features
importance of early treatment, in an attempt to prevent Symptoms of heart failure (for example, breathlessness, fatigue, ankle
progression to more severe disease, cannot be overemphasised. swelling)
Objective evidence of cardiac dysfunction (at rest)
Complications Non-essential features
Arrhythmias Response to treatment directed towards heart failure (in cases where
the diagnosis is in doubt)
Atrial fibrillation
Atrial fibrillation is present in about a third (range 10-50%) of
patients with chronic heart failure and may represent either a
cause or a consequence of heart failure. The onset of atrial
fibrillation with a rapid ventricular response may precipitate NYHA classification of heart failure
overt heart failure, particularly in patients with pre-existing Class I: asymptomatic
ventricular dysfunction. Predisposing causes should be No limitation in physical activity despite presence of heart disease.
considered, including mitral valve disease, thyrotoxicosis, and This can be suspected only if there is a history of heart disease which
sinus node disease. Importantly, sinus node disease may be is confirmed by investigations—for example, echocardiography
associated with bradycardias, which might be exacerbated by Class II: mild
antiarrhythmic treatment. Slight limitation in physical activity. More strenuous activity causes
Atrial fibrillation that occurs with severe left ventricular shortness of breath—for example, walking on steep inclines and
several flights of steps. Patients in this group can continue to have an
dysfunction following myocardial infarction is associated with a
almost normal lifestyle and employment
poor prognosis. In addition, patients with heart failure and
Class III: moderate
atrial fibrillation are at particularly high risk of stroke and other
More marked limitation of activity which interferes with work. Walking
thromboembolic complications. on the flat produces symptoms

Ventricular arrhythmias Class IV: severe

Unable to carry out any physical activity without symptoms. Patients
Malignant ventricular arrhythmias are common in end stage
are breathless at rest and mostly housebound
heart failure. For example, sustained monomorphic ventricular
BMJ VOLUME 320 22 JANUARY 2000 237
Clinical review Downloaded from on 1 October 2006

tachycardia occurs in up to 10% of patients with advanced heart

Predisposing factors for ventricular arrhythmias
failure who are referred for cardiac transplantation. In patients
with ischaemic heart disease these arrhythmias often have x Recurrent or continued coronary ischaemia
x Recurrent myocardial infarction
re-entrant mechanisms in scarred myocardial tissue. An episode
x Hypokalaemia and hyperkalaemia
of sustained ventricular tachycardia indicates a high risk for x Hypomagnesaemia
recurrent ventricular arrhythmias and sudden cardiac death. x Psychotropic drugs—for example, tricyclic antidepressants
Sustained polymorphic ventricular tachycardia and torsades x Digoxin (leading to toxicity)
de pointes are more likely to occur in the presence of x Antiarrhythmic drugs that may be cardiodepressant (negative
precipitating or aggravating factors, including electrolyte inotropism) and proarrhythmic
disturbance (for example, hypokalaemia or hyperkalaemia,
hypomagnesaemia), prolonged QT interval, digoxin toxicity,
drugs causing electrical instability (for example, antiarrhythmic
drugs, antidepressants), and continued or recurrent myocardial
ischaemia. â Blockers are useful for treating arrhythmias, and
these agents (for example, bisoprolol, metoprolol, carvedilol)
are likely to be increasingly used as a treatment option in
patients with heart failure.

Stroke and thromboembolism

Congestive heart failure predisposes to stroke and
thromboembolism, with an overall estimated annual incidence
of approximately 2%. Factors contributing to the increased
thromboembolic risk in patients with heart failure include low
cardiac output (with relative stasis of blood in dilated cardiac
chambers), regional wall motion abnormalities (including
formation of a left ventricular aneurysm), and associated atrial
fibrillation. Although the prevalence of atrial fibrillation in some
of the earlier observational studies was between 12% and
36%—which may have accounted for some of the
thromboembolic events—patients with chronic heart failure
who remain in sinus rhythm are also at an increased risk of
stroke and venous thromboembolism. Patients with heart failure
and chronic venous insufficiency may also be immobile, and this
contributes to their increased risk of thrombosis, including deep
venous thrombosis and pulmonary embolism.
24 Hour Holter tracing showing frequent ventricular extrasystoles
Recent observational data from the studies of left ventricular
dysfunction (SOLVD) and vasodilator heart failure trials
(V-HeFT) indicate that mild to moderate heart failure is
associated with an annual risk of stroke of about 1.5%
(compared with a risk of less than 0.5% in those without heart
failure), rising to 4% in patients with severe heart failure. In
addition, the survival and ventricular enlargement (SAVE) study Complications of heart failure
recently reported an inverse relation between risk of stroke and Arrhythmias—Atrial fibrillation; ventricular arrhythmias (ventricular
left ventricular ejection fraction, with an 18% increase in risk for tachycardia, ventricular fibrillation); bradyarrhythmias
every 5% reduction in left ventricular ejection fraction; this Thromboembolism—Stroke; peripheral embolism; deep venous
clearly relates thromboembolism to severe cardiac impairment thrombosis; pulmonary embolism
Gastrointestinal—Hepatic congestion and hepatic dysfunction;
and the severity of heart failure. As thromboembolic risk seems
to be related to left atrial and left ventricular dilatation, Musculoskeletal—Muscle wasting
echocardiography may have some role in the risk stratification Respiratory—Pulmonary congestion; respiratory muscle weakness;
of thromboembolism in patients with chronic heart failure. pulmonary hypertension (rare)

Most long term (more than 10 years of follow up) longitudinal
studies of heart failure, including the Framingham heart study
(1971), were performed before the widespread use of
angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitors. In the Framingham Morbidity and mortality for all grades of
study the overall survival at eight years for all NYHA classes was symptomatic chronic heart failure are
30%, compared with a one year mortality in classes III and IV of high, with a 20-30% one year mortality in
mild to moderate heart failure and a
34% and a one year mortality in class IV of over 60%. The
greater than 50% one year mortality in
prognosis in patients whose left ventricular dysfunction is
severe heart failure. These prognostic
asymptomatic is better than that in those whose left ventricular data refer to patients with systolic heart
dysfunction is symptomatic. The prognosis in patients with failure, as the natural course of diastolic
congestive heart failure is dependent on severity, age, and sex, dysfunction is less well defined
with a poorer prognosis in male patients. In addition, numerous
prognostic indices are associated with an adverse prognosis,
238 BMJ VOLUME 320 22 JANUARY 2000
Downloaded from on 1 October 2006 Clinical review

including NYHA class, left ventricular ejection fraction, and

neurohormonal status. Some predictors of poor outcome in chronic heart failure
Survival can be prolonged in chronic heart failure that x High NYHA functional class
results from systolic dysfunction if angiotensin converting x Reduced left ventricular ejection fraction
enzyme inhibitors are given. Longitudinal data from the x Low peak oxygen consumption with maximal exercise (% predicted
Framingham study and the Mayo Clinic suggest, however, that value)
there is still only a limited improvement in the one year survival x Third heart sound
x Increased pulmonary artery capillary wedge pressure
rate of patients with newly diagnosed symptomatic chronic
x Reduced cardiac index
heart failure, which remains at 60-70%. In these studies only a x Diabetes mellitus
minority of patients with congestive heart failure were x Reduced sodium concentration
appropriately treated, with less than 25% of them receiving x Raised plasma catecholamine and natriuretic peptide
angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitors, and even among concentrations
treated patients the dose used was much lower than doses used
in the clinical trials.

Cardiac mortality in placebo controlled heart failure trials

Cardiovascular mortality
Patients’ heart Treatment Placebo Follow up
Trial characteristics disease (%) Treatment (%) (%) (years)
CONSENSUS NYHA IV (cardiomegaly) 73 Enalapril 38 54 1
SOLVD-P Asymptomatic (EF < 35%) 83 Enalapril 13 14 4
SOLVD-T Symptomatic (EF < 35%) 71 Enalapril 31 36 4
SAVE Postmyocardial infarction (EF < 40%) 100 Captopril 17 21 4
V-HeFT I NYHA II-III (EF < 45%) 44 H-ISDN 37 41 5
V-HeFT II NYHA II-III (EF < 45%) 52 Enalapril 28 34* 5
PRAISE NYHA III-IV (EF < 30%) 63 Amlodipine 28 33 1.2
EF ejection fraction. SOLVD-P, SOLVD-T = studies of left ventricular dysfunction prevention arm (P) and treatment arm (T).
H-ISDN = hydralazine and isosorbide dinitrate.
*Treatment with H-ISDN.

Treatment with angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitors

prevents or delays the onset of symptomatic heart failure in Key references
patients with asymptomatic, or minimally symptomatic, left x Doval HC, Nul DR, Grancelli HO, Perrone SV, Bortman GR,
ventricular systolic dysfunction. The increase in mortality with Curiel R, et al. Randomised trial of low-dose amiodarone in severe
congestive heart failure. Lancet 1994;334:493-8.
the development of symptoms suggests that the optimal time
x Gradman A, Deedwania P, Cody R, Massie B, Packer M, Pitt B, et al.
for intervention with these agents is well before the onset of Predictors of total mortality and sudden death in mild to moderate
substantial left ventricular dysfunction, even in the absence of heart failure. J Am Coll Cardiol 1989;14:564-70.
overt clinical symptoms of heart failure. This benefit has been x Guidelines for the diagnosis of heart failure. The Task Force on
confirmed in several large, well conducted, postmyocardial Heart Failure of the European Society of Cardiology. Eur Heart J
infarction studies. 1995;16:741-51.
x Rodeheffer RJ, Jacobsen SJ, Gersh BJ, Kottke TE, McCann HA,
Sudden death Bailey KR, et al. The incidence and prevalence of congestive heart
The mode of death in heart failure has been extensively failure in Rochester, Minnesota. Mayo Clin Proc 1993;68:1143-50.
investigated, and progressive heart failure and sudden death x The SOLVD Investigators. Effect of enalapril on mortality and the
development of heart failure in asymptomatic patients with reduced
seem to occur with equal frequency. Some outstanding
left ventricular ejection fractions. N Engl J Med 1992;327:685-91.
questions still remain, however. Although arrhythmias are x The CONSENSUS Trial Study Group. Effects of enalapril on
common in patients with heart failure and are indicators of mortality in severe congestive heart failure: results of the
disease severity, they are not powerful independent predictors cooperative north Scandinavian enalapril survival study
of prognosis. Sudden death may be related to ventricular (CONSENSUS). N Engl J Med 1987;316:1429-35.
arrhythmias, although asystole is a common terminal event in
severe heart failure. It has not been firmly established whether
these arrhythmias are primary arrhythmias or whether some
are secondary to acute coronary ischaemia or indicate in situ
coronary thrombosis. The cause of death is often uncertain, The table on the sensitivity, specificity, and predictive value of symptoms,
especially as the patient may die of a cardiac arrest outside signs, and chest x ray findings is adapted with permission from Harlan et al
(Ann Intern Med 1977;86:133-8).
hospital or while asleep.

The ABC of heart failure is edited by C R Gibbs, M K Davies, and

R D S Watson is consultant cardiologist in the university department G Y H Lip. CRG is research fellow and GYHL is consultant
of medicine and the department of cardiology, City Hospital, cardiologist and reader in medicine in the university department of
Birmingham. medicine and the department of cardiology, City Hospital,
Birmingham; MKD is consultant cardiologist in the department of
cardiology, Selly Oak Hospital, Birmingham. The series will be
BMJ 2000;320:236-9 published as a book in the spring.
BMJ VOLUME 320 22 JANUARY 2000 239
Downloaded from on 1 October 2006 Clinical review

ABC of heart failure

M K Davies, C R Gibbs, G Y H Lip

Clinical assessment is mandatory before detailed investigations

Investigations if heart failure is suspected
are conducted in patients with suspected heart failure, although
specific clinical features are often absent and the condition can Initial investigations
x Chest radiography
be diagnosed accurately only in conjunction with more
x Electrocardiography
objective investigation, particularly echocardiography. Although x Echocardiography, including Doppler studies
open access echocardiography is now increasingly available, x Haematology tests
appropriate pre-referral investigations include chest x Serum biochemistry, including renal function and glucose
radiography, 12 lead electrocardiography, and renal chemistry. concentrations, liver function tests, and thyroid function tests
x Cardiac enzymes (if recent infarction is suspected)
Other investigations
Chest x ray examination x Radionuclide imaging
x Cardiopulmonary exercise testing
The chest x ray examination has an important role in the x Cardiac catheterisation
routine investigation of patients with suspected heart failure, x Myocardial biopsy—for example, in suspected myocarditis
and it may also be useful in monitoring the response to
treatment. Cardiac enlargement (cardiothoracic ratio > 50%)
may be present, but there is a poor correlation between the
cardiothoracic ratio and left ventricular function. The presence
of cardiomegaly is dependent on both the severity of
haemodynamic disturbance and its duration: cardiomegaly is
frequently absent, for example, in acute left ventricular failure
secondary to acute myocardial infarction, acute valvar
regurgitation, or an acquired ventricular septal defect. An
increased cardiothoracic ratio may be related to left or right
ventricular dilatation, left ventricular hypertrophy, and
occasionally a pericardial effusion, particularly if the cardiac
silhouette has a globular appearance. Echocardiography is
required to distinguish reliably between these different causes,
although in decompensated heart failure other radiographic
features may be present, such as pulmonary congestion or
pulmonary oedema.
In left sided failure, pulmonary venous congestion occurs,
initially in the upper zones (referred to as upper lobe diversion
or congestion). When the pulmonary venous pressure increases
further, usually above 20 mm Hg, fluid may be present in the
horizontal fissure and Kerley B lines in the costophrenic angles.
In the presence of pulmonary venous pressures above 25 mm
Hg, frank pulmonary oedema occurs, with a “bats wing”
appearance in the lungs, although this is also dependent on the
rate at which the pulmonary oedema has developed. In
addition, pleural effusions occur, normally bilaterally, but if they
are unilateral the right side is more commonly affected.
Nevertheless, it is not possible to distinguish, when viewed in
isolation, whether pulmonary congestion is related to cardiac or
non-cardiac causes (for example, renal disease, drugs, the
respiratory distress syndrome).
Rarely, chest radiography may also show valvar calcification,
a left ventricular aneurysm, and the typical pericardial
calcification of constrictive pericarditis. Chest radiography may
also provide valuable information about non-cardiac causes of

12 lead electrocardiography
The 12 lead electrocardiographic tracing is abnormal in most
patients with heart failure, although it can be normal in up to
Chest radiographs showing gross cardiomegaly in patient
10% of cases. Common abnormalities include Q waves,
with dilated cardiomyopathy (top); cardiomegaly and
abnormalities in the T wave and ST segment, left ventricular pulmonary congestion with fluid in horizontal fissure
hypertrophy, bundle branch block, and atrial fibrillation. It is a (bottom)
BMJ VOLUME 320 29 JANUARY 2000 297
Clinical review Downloaded from on 1 October 2006

useful screening test as a normal electrocardiographic tracing

Value of electrocardiography* in identifying heart failure
makes it unlikely that the patient has heart failure secondary to
resulting from left ventricular systolic dysfunction
left ventricular systolic dysfunction, since this test has high
sensitivity and a negative predictive value. The combination of a Sensitivity 94%
normal chest x ray finding and a normal electrocardiographic Specificity 61%
tracing makes a cardiac cause of dyspnoea very unlikely. Positive predictive value 35%
In patients with symptoms (palpitations or dizziness), 24 hour Negative predictive value 98%
electrocardiographic (Holter) monitoring or a Cardiomemo
*Electrocardiographic abnormalities are defined as atrial fibrillation, evidence of
device will detect paroxysmal arrhythmias or other abnormalities, previous myocardial infarction, left ventricular hypertrophy, bundle branch
such as ventricular extrasystoles, sustained or non-sustained block, and left axis deviation.

ventricular tachycardia, and abnormal atrial rhythms

(extrasystoles, supraventricular tachycardia, and paroxysmal atrial
fibrillation). Many patients with heart failure, however, show
complex ventricular extrasystoles on 24 hour monitoring.

I aVR V1 V4

Echocardiography is the single most useful non-invasive test in II aVL V2 V5
the assessment of left ventricular function; ideally it should be
conducted in all patients with suspected heart failure. Although
clinical assessment, when combined with a chest x ray
examination and electrocardiography, allows a preliminary
diagnosis of heart failure, echocardiography provides an
objective assessment of cardiac structure and function. Left
ventricular dilatation and impairment of contraction is
observed in patients with systolic dysfunction related to
ischaemic heart disease (where a regional wall motion
abnormality may be detected) or in dilated cardiomyopathy
(with global impairment of systolic contraction).
I aVR V1 V4
A quantitative measurement can be obtained from
calculation of the left ventricular ejection fraction. This is the
stroke volume (the difference between the end diastolic and end aVL V2 V5
systolic volumes) expressed as a percentage of the left
ventricular end diastolic volume. Measurements, and the
assessment of left ventricular function, are less reliable in the III aVF V3 V6
presence of atrial fibrillation. The left ventricular ejection
fraction has been correlated with outcome and survival in
patients with heart failure, although the assessment may be II

unreliable in patients with regional abnormalities in wall

motion. Regional abnormalities can also be quantified into a
wall motion index, although in practice the assessment of
systolic function is often based on visual assessment and the
observer’s experience of normal and abnormal contractile Electrocardiograms showing previous anterior myocardial infarction with Q
waves in anteroseptal leads (top) and left bundle branch block (bottom)
function. These abnormalities are described as hypokinetic
(reduced systolic contraction), akinetic (no systolic contraction)
and dyskinetic (abnormalities of direction or timing of
contraction, or both), and refer to universally recognised Who should have an echocardiogram?
segments of the left ventricle. Echocardiography may also show
x Almost all patients with symptoms or signs of heart failure
other abnormalities, including valvar disease, left ventricular
x Symptoms of breathlessness in association with signs of a murmur
aneurysm, intracardiac thrombus, and pericardial disease. x Dyspnoea associated with atrial fibrillation
Mitral incompetence is commonly identified on x Patients at “high risk” for left ventricular dysfunction—for example,
echocardiography in patients with heart failure, as a result of those with anterior myocardial infarction, poorly controlled
ventricular and annular dilatation (“functional” mitral hypertension, or arrhythmias
incompetence), and this must be distinguished from mitral
incompetence related to primary valve disease. Two
dimensional echocardiography allows the assessment of valve
structure and identifies thickening of cusps, leaflet prolapse,
cusp fusion, and calcification. Doppler echocardiography allows Echocardiography as a guide to management
the quantitative assessment of flow across valves and the x Identification of impaired systolic function for decision on
identification of valve stenosis, in addition to the assessment of treatment with angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitors
right ventricular systolic pressures and allowing the indirect x Identification of diastolic dysfunction or predominantly right
diagnosis of pulmonary hypertension. Doppler studies have ventricular dysfunction
been used in the assessment of diastolic function, although x Identification and assessment of valvar disease
x Assessment of embolic risk (severe left ventricular impairment with
there is no single reliable echocardiographic measure of
mural thrombus)
diastolic dysfunction. Colour flow Doppler techniques are
298 BMJ VOLUME 320 29 JANUARY 2000
Downloaded from on 1 October 2006 Clinical review

particularly sensitive in detecting the direction of blood flow

and the presence of valve incompetence.
Advances in echocardiography include the use of contrast
agents for visualisation of the walls of the left ventricle in more
detail, especially as in about 10% of patients satisfactory images
cannot be obtained with standard transthoracic
echocardiography. Transoesophageal echocardiography allows
the detailed assessment of the atria, valves, pulmonary veins,
and any cardiac masses, including thrombi.
The logistic and health economic aspects of large scale
screening with echocardiography have been debated, but the
development of open access echocardiography heart failure
services for general practitioners and the availability of proved
treatments for heart failure that improve prognosis, such as
angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitors, highlight the
importance of an agreed strategy for the echocardiographic
assessment of these patients.

Haematology and biochemistry

Routine haematology and biochemistry investigations are
recommended to exclude anaemia as a cause of breathlessness
and high output heart failure and to exclude important
pre-existing metabolic abnormalities. In mild and moderate
heart failure, renal function and electrolytes are usually normal.
In severe (New York Heart Association, class IV) heart failure,
however, as a result of reduced renal perfusion, high dose Transthoracic echocardiograms: two dimensional apical view (top) and
diuretics, sodium restriction, and activation of the Doppler studies (bottom) showing severe calcific stenosis, with an estimated
neurohormonal mechanisms (including vasopressin), there is an aortic gradient of over 70 mm Hg (A=left ventricle, B=aortic valve, and
inability to excrete water, and dilutional hyponatraemia may be C=left atrium)
present. Hyponatraemia is, therefore, a marker of the severity of
chronic heart failure.
Natriuretic peptides
A baseline assessment of renal function is important before
starting treatment, as the renal blood flow and the glomerular x Biochemical markers are being sought for the diagnosis of
congestive heart failure
filtration rate fall in severe congestive heart failure. Baseline
x Brain natriuretic peptide concentrations correlate with the severity
serum creatinine concentrations are important: increasing of heart failure and prognosis
creatinine concentrations may occur after the start of treatment, x These could, in the future, be used to distinguish between patients
particularly in patients who are receiving angiotensin in whom heart failure is extremely unlikely and those in whom the
converting enzyme inhibitors and high doses of diuretics and in probability of heart failure is high
patients with renal artery stenosis. Proteinuria is a common x At present, however, the evidence that blood natriuretic peptide
concentrations are valuable in identifying important left ventricular
finding in severe congestive heart failure.
systolic dysfunction is conflicting, and their use in routine practice is
Hypokalaemia occurs when high dose diuretics are used still limited
without potassium supplementation or potassium sparing x Further studies are necessary to determine the most convenient
agents. Hyperkalaemia can also occur in severe congestive heart and cost effective methods of identifying patients with heart failure
failure with a low glomerular filtration rate, particularly with the and asymptomatic left ventricular dysfunction
concurrent use of angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitors
and potassium sparing diuretics. Both hypokalaemia and
hyperkalaemia increase the risk of cardiac arrhythmias;
hypomagnesaemia, which is associated with long term diuretic
treatment, increases the risk of ventricular arrhythmias. Liver
function tests (serum bilirubin, aspartate aminotransferase, and
lactate dehydrogenase) are often abnormal in advanced
congestive heart failure, as a result of hepatic congestion.
Thyroid function tests are also recommended in all patients, in
view of the association between thyroid disease and the heart.

Radionuclide methods
Radionuclide imaging—or multigated ventriculography—allows
the assessment of the global left and right ventricular function.
Images may be obtained in patients where echocardiography is
not possible. The most common method labels red cells with
technetium-99m and acquires 16 or 32 frames per heart beat by Multigated ventriculography scan in patient with
synchronising (“gating”) imaging with electrocardiography. This history of extensive myocardial infarction and
allows the assessment of ejection fraction, systolic filling rate, coronary bypass grafting (left ventricular ejection
fraction of 30%)
diastolic emptying rate, and wall motion abnormalities. These
BMJ VOLUME 320 29 JANUARY 2000 299
Clinical review Downloaded from on 1 October 2006

variables can be assessed, if necessary, during rest and exercise;

Stress studies use graded physical
this method is ideal for the serial reassessment of ejection
exercise or pharmacological stress with
fraction, but these methods do expose the patient to radiation. agents such as adenosine, dipyridamole,
Radionuclide studies are also valuable for assessing and dobutamine. Stress echocardiography
myocardial perfusion and the presence or extent of coronary is emerging as a useful technique for
ischaemia, including myocardial stunning and hibernating assessing myocardial reversibility in
myocardium. patients with coronary artery disease

Angiography, cardiac catheterisation,

Coronary angiography is essential for
and myocardial biopsy accurate assessment of the coronary
Angiography should be considered in patients with recurrent
ischaemic chest pain associated with heart failure and in those
with evidence of severe reversible ischaemia or hibernating
myocardium. Cardiac catheterisation with myocardial biopsy
Cardiopulmonary exercise testing
can be valuable in more difficult cases where there is diagnostic
doubt—for example, in restrictive and infiltrating x Exercise tolerance is reduced in patients with heart failure,
regardless of method of assessment
cardiomyopathies (amyloid heart disease, sarcoidosis),
x Assessment methods include a treadmill test, cycle ergometry, a 6
myocarditis, and pericardial disease. Left ventricular minute walking test, or pedometry measurements
angiography can show global or segmental impairment of x Exercise testing is not routinely performed for all patients with
function and assess end diastolic pressures, and right heart congestive heart failure, but it may be valuable in identifying
catheterisation allows an assessment of the right sided pressures substantial residual ischaemia, thus leading to more detailed
(right atrium, right ventricle, and pulmonary arteries) and investigation
pulmonary artery capillary wedge pressure, in addition to x Respiratory physiological measurements may be made during
exercise, and most cardiac transplant centres use data obtained at
oxygen saturations.
cardiopulmonary exercise testing to aid the selection of patients for
x The maximum oxygen consumption is the value at which
Pulmonary function tests consumption remains stable despite increasing exercise, and it
represents the upper limit of aerobic exercise tolerance
Objective measurement of lung function is useful in excluding x The maximum oxygen consumption and the carbon dioxide
respiratory causes of breathlessness, although respiratory and production correlate well with the severity of heart failure
cardiac disease commonly coexist. Peak expiratory flow rate and x The maximum oxygen consumption has also been independently
forced expiratory volume in one second are reduced in heart related to long term prognosis, especially in patients with severe left
failure, although not as much as in severe chronic obstructive ventricular dysfunction
pulmonary disease. In patients with severe breathlessness and
wheeze, a peak expiratory flow rate of < 200 l/min suggests
reversible airways disease, not acute left ventricular failure.
Further reading
x Cheeseman MG, Leech G, Chambers J,
Monaghan MJ, Nihoyannopoulos P. Central
role of echocardiography in the diagnosis
Assessments for the investigation and diagnosis of heart failure and assessment of heart failure. Heart
1998;80(suppl 1):S1-5.
Diagnosis of heart failure Suggests x Dargie HJ, McMurray JVV. Diagnosis and
alternative or management of heart failure. BMJ
Assessments Necessary Supports Opposes additional disease 1994;308:321-8.
Symptoms of heart ++ ++ x Schiller NB, Foster E. Analysis of left
failure (if absent) ventricular systolic function. Heart
1996;75(suppl 2):17-26.
Signs of heart failure + + +
(if absent)
Response to treatment + + + +
(if absent)
Electrocardiography + + The table showing the value of electrocardiography is
(if normal) adapted from Davie et al (BMJ 1996;312:222). The
Chest radiography ++ + Pulmonary table of assessments for the investigation and
(cardiomegaly or (if normal) diagnosis of heart failure is adapted with permission
congestion) from the Task Force on Heart Failure of the European
Society of Cardiology (Eur Heart J 1995;16:741-51).
Echocardiography ++ ++
(cardiac dysfunction) (if absent) The ABC of heart failure is edited by C R Gibbs,
Haematology Anaemia M K Davies, and G Y H Lip. CRG is research
Biochemistry (renal, Renal, liver, fellow and GYHL is consultant cardiologist and
reader in medicine in the university department of
liver function, and thyroid
medicine and the department of cardiology, City
thyroid function tests)
Hospital, Birmingham; MKD is consultant
Urine analysis Renal cardiologist in the department of cardiology, Selly
Pulmonary function Pulmonary Oak Hospital, Birmingham. The series will be
tests published as a book in the spring.

+ + = Great importance; + = some importance. BMJ 2000;320:297-300

300 BMJ VOLUME 320 29 JANUARY 2000
Clinical review Downloaded from on 1 October 2006

ABC of heart failure

Non-drug management
C R Gibbs, G Jackson, G Y H Lip

Approaches to the management of heart failure can be both

Non-pharmacological measures for the management of heart
non-pharmacological and pharmacological; each approach
complements the other. This article will discuss
non-pharmacological management. x Compliance—give careful advice about disease, treatment, and self
help strategies
x Diet—ensure adequate general nutrition and, in obese patients,
weight reduction
Counselling and education of patients x Salt—advise patients to avoid high salt content foods and not to add
Effective counselling and education of patients, and of the salt (particularly in severe cases of congestive heart failure)
x Fluid—urge overloaded patients and those with severe congestive
relatives or carers, is important and may enhance long term
heart failure to restrict their fluid intake
adherence to management strategies. Simple explanations x Alcohol—advise moderate alcohol consumption (abstinence in
about the symptoms and signs of heart failure, including details alcohol related cardiomyopathy)
on drug and other treatment strategies, are valuable. Emphasis x Smoking—avoid smoking (adverse effects on coronary disease,
should be placed on self help strategies for each patient; these adverse haemodynamic effects)
should include information on the need to adhere to drug x Exercise—regular exercise should be encouraged
x Vaccination—patients should consider influenza and pneumococcal
treatment. Some patients can be instructed how to monitor
their weight at home on a daily basis and how to adjust the dose
of diuretics as advised; sudden weight increases ( > 2 kg in 1-3
days), for example, should alert a patient to alter his or her
treatment or seek advice.

Lifestyle measures
Urging patients to alter their lifestyle is important in the
management of chronic heart failure. Social activities should be Daily weighing
Self management
encouraged, however, and care should be taken to ensure that of diuretics

patients avoid social isolation. If possible, patients should

continue their regular work, with adaptations to accommodate a Self help strategies
reduced physical capacity where appropriate.
Compliance with Regular
Contraceptive advice medication exercise
Advice on contraception should be offered to women of
childbearing potential, particularly those patients with advanced
heart failure (class III-IV in the New York Heart Association’s Self help strategies for patients with heart failure
classification), in whom the risk of maternal morbidity and
mortality is high with pregnancy and childbirth. Current
hormonal contraceptive methods are much safer than in the
past: low dose oestrogen and third generation progestogen
derivatives are associated with a relatively low thromboembolic
Intrauterine devices are a suitable form of
Smoking contraception, although these may be a
problem in patients with primary valvar
Cigarette smoking should be strongly discouraged in patients
disease, in view of the risks of infection
with heart failure. In addition to the well established adverse and risks associated with oral
effects on coronary disease, which is the underlying cause in a anticoagulation
substantial proportion of patients, smoking has adverse
haemodynamic effects in patients with congestive heart failure.
For example, smoking tends to reduce cardiac output, especially
in patients with a history of myocardial infarction.
Other adverse haemodynamic effects include an increase in
heart rate and systemic blood pressure (double product) and
mild increases in pulmonary artery pressure, ventricular filling Menopausal women with heart failure
pressures, and total systemic and pulmonary vascular resistance. x Observational data indicate that hormone replacement therapy
The peripheral vasoconstriction may contribute to the reduces the risk of coronary events in postmenopausal women
observed mild reduction in stroke volume, and thus smoking x However, there is limited prospective evidence to advise the use of
increases oxygen demand and also decreases myocardial such therapy in postmenopausal women with heart failure
oxygen supply owing to reduced diastolic filling time (with x Nevertheless, there may be an increased risk of venous thrombosis
in postmenopausal women taking hormone replacement therapy,
faster heart rates) and increased carboxyhaemoglobin
which may exacerbate the risk associated with heart failure
366 BMJ VOLUME 320 5 FEBRUARY 2000
Downloaded from on 1 October 2006 Clinical review

In general, alcohol consumption should be restricted to
moderate levels, given the myocardial depressant properties of Community and social support
alcohol. In addition to the direct toxic effects of alcohol on the x Community support is particularly important for elderly or
myocardium, a high alcohol intake predisposes to arrhythmias functionally restricted patients with chronic heart failure
(especially atrial fibrillation) and hypertension and may lead to x Support may help to improve the quality of life and reduce
admission rates
important alterations in fluid balance. The prognosis in alcohol
x Social services support and community based interventions, with
induced cardiomyopathy is poor if consumption continues, and advice and assistance for close relatives, are also important
abstinence should be advised. Abstinence can result in marked
improvements, with echocardiographic studies showing
substantial clinical benefit and improvements in left ventricular
function. Resumed alcohol consumption may subsequently lead
to acute or worsening heart failure. Managing cachexia in chronic heart failure
Combined management by physician and dietician is recommended
Immunisation and antiobiotic prophylaxis x Alter size and frequency of meals
x Ensure a higher energy diet
Chronic heart failure predisposes to and can be exacerbated by x Supplement diet with (a) water soluble vitamins (loss associated
pulmonary infection, and influenza and pneumococcal with diuresis), (b) fat soluble vitamins (levels reduced as a result of
vaccinations should therefore be considered in all patients with poor absorption), and (c) fish oils
heart failure. Antibiotic prophylaxis, for dental and other
surgical procedures, is mandatory in patients with primary valve
disease and prosthetic heart valves.

Diet and nutrition Date

Although controlled trials offer only limited information on diet Pulse
and nutritional measures, such measures are as important in BP (lying)
heart failure, as in any other chronic illness, to ensure adequate
BP (standing)
and appropriate nutritional balance. Poor nutrition may
contribute to cardiac cachexia, although malnutrition is not
limited to patients with obvious weight loss and muscle wasting.
Drug 1
Patients with chronic heart failure are at an increased risk
from malnutrition owing to (a) a decreased intake resulting Drug 2

from a poor appetite, which may be related to drug treatment Drug 3

(for example, aspirin, digoxin), metabolic disturbance (for Drug 4
example, hyponatraemia or renal failure), or hepatic Drug 5
congestion; (b) malabsorption, particularly in patients with Drug 6
severe heart failure; and (c) increased nutritional requirements, Serum urea/creatinine
with patients who have congestive heart failure having an Serum potassium
increase of up to 20% in basal metabolic rate. These factors may Other investigations
contribute to a net catabolic state where lean muscle mass is Next visit
reduced, leading to an increase in symptoms and reduced
Doctor's signature
exercise capacity. Indeed, cardiac cachexia is an independent
risk factor for mortality in patients with chronic heart failure. A
formal nutritional assessment should thus be considered in Heart failure cooperation card: patients and doctors are able to monitor
those patients who appear to have a poor nutritional state. changes in clinical signs (including weight), drug treatment, and baseline
investigations. Patients should be encouraged to monitor their weight
Weight loss in obese patients should be encouraged as between clinic visits
excess body mass increases cardiac workload during exercise.
Weight reduction in obese patients to within 10% of the optimal
body weight should be encouraged.
Commonly consumed processed foods that have a high
Salt restriction sodium content
No randomised studies have addressed the role of salt x Cheese
restriction in congestive heart failure. Nevertheless restriction to x Sausages
about 2 g of sodium a day may be useful as an adjunct to x Crisps, salted peanuts
treatment with high dose diuretics, particularly if the condition x Milk and white chocolate
is advanced. x Tinned soup and tinned vegetables
x Ham, bacon, tinned meat (eg corned beef)
In general, patients should be advised that they should avoid
x Tinned fish (eg sardines, salmon, tuna)
foods that are rich in salt and not to add salt to their food at the x Smoked fish

Fluid intake
Fluid restriction (1.5-2 litres daily) should be considered in
Fresh produce, such as fruit, vegetables,
patients with severe symptoms, those requiring high dose eggs, and fish, has a relatively low salt
diuretics, and those with a tendency towards excessive fluid content
intake. High fluid intake negates the positive effects of diuretics
and induces hyponatraemia.
BMJ VOLUME 320 5 FEBRUARY 2000 367
Clinical review Downloaded from on 1 October 2006

Exercise training and rehabilitation

Exercise training has been shown to benefit patients with heart Effects of deconditioning in heart failure
failure: patients show an improvement in symptoms, a greater
sense of wellbeing, and better functional capacity. Exercise does Peripheral alterations Increased peripheral vascular resistance;
impaired oxygen utilisation during
not, however, result in obvious improvement in cardiac function.
All stable patients with heart failure should be encouraged
to participate in a supervised, simple exercise programme. Abnormalities of Enhanced sympathetic activation; vagal
Although bed rest (“armchair treatment”) may be appropriate autonomic control withdrawal; reduced baroreflex sensitivity
in patients with acute heart failure, regular exercise should be Skeletal muscle Reduced mass and composition
encouraged in patients with chronic heart failure. Indeed, abnormalities
chronic immobility may result in loss of muscle mass in the
lower limb and generalised physical deconditioning, leading to Reduced functional Reduced exercise tolerance; reduced
capacity peak oxygen consumption
a further reduction in exercise capacity and a predisposition to
thromboembolism. Deconditioning itself may be detrimental, Psychological effects Reduced activity; reduced overall sense of
with peripheral alterations and central abnormalities leading to wellbeing
vasoconstriction, further deterioration in left ventricular
function, and greater reduction in functional capacity.
Importantly, regular exercise has the potential to slow or
stop this process and exert beneficial effects on the autonomic
profile, with reduced sympathetic activity and enhanced vagal
tone, thus reversing some of the adverse consequences of heart
failure. Large prospective clinical trials will establish whether
these beneficial effects improve prognosis and reduce the
incidence of sudden death in patients with chronic heart failure.
Regular exercise should therefore be advocated in stable
patients as there is the potential for improvements in exercise
tolerance and quality of life, without deleterious effects on left
ventricular function. Cardiac rehabilitation services offer benefit
to this group, and patients should be encouraged to develop
their own regular exercise routine, including walking, cycling,
and swimming. Nevertheless, patients should know their limits,
and excessive fatigue or breathlessness should be avoided. In
the first instance, a structured walking programme would be the
easiest to adopt.

Beneficial effects of exercise in chronic heart failure

Has positive effects on:
x Skeletal muscle
x Autonomic function Exercise class for group of patients with heart failure (published with
permission of participants)
x Endothelial function
x Neurohormonal function
x Insulin sensitivity
No positive effects on survival have been shown

Treatment of underlying disease

Treatment should also be aimed at slowing or reversing any
underlying disease process.
Good blood pressure control is essential, and angiotensin
converting enzyme inhibitors are the drugs of choice in patients
with impaired systolic function, in view of their beneficial effects
on slowing disease progression and improving prognosis. In
cases of isolated diastolic dysfunction, either â blockers or
calcium channel blockers with rate limiting properties—for
example, verapamil, diltiazem—have theoretical advantages. If
severe left ventricular hypertrophy is the cause of diastolic
dysfunction, however, an angiotensin converting enzyme
inhibitor may be more effective at inducing regression of left
ventricular hypertrophy. Angiotensin II receptor antagonists
M mode echocardiogram showing left ventricular hypertrophy in
should be considered as an alternative if cough that is induced hypertensive patient (A=interventricular septum; B=posterior wall of left
by angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitors is problematic. ventricle)
368 BMJ VOLUME 320 5 FEBRUARY 2000
Downloaded from on 1 October 2006 Clinical review

I aVR V1 V4

II aVL V2 V5



Electrocardiogram showing left ventricular hypertrophy on voltage criteria, with associated T wave and ST changes in the
lateral leads (“strain pattern”)

If coronary heart disease is the underlying cause of chronic
heart failure and if cardiac ischaemia is present, the patient may
benefit from coronary revascularisation, including coronary
angioplasty or coronary artery bypass grafting.
Role of surgery in heart failure
Revascularisation may also improve the function of previously
hibernating myocardium. Valve replacement or valve repair Type of surgery Reason
should be considered in patients with haemodynamically
Coronary revascularisation Angina, reversible ischaemia,
important primary valve disease.
(PTCA, CABG) hibernating myocardium
Cardiac transplantation is now established as the treatment
Valve replacement (or repair) Significant valve disease (aortic
of choice for some patients with severe heart failure who
stenosis, mitral regurgitation)
remain symptomatic despite intensive medical treatment. It is
Permanent pacemakers and Bradycardias; resistant ventricular
associated with a one year survival of about 90% and a 10 year
implantable cardiodefibrillators arrhythmias
survival of 50-60%, although it is limited by the availability of
Cardiac transplantation End stage heart failure
donor organs. Transplantation should be considered in younger
patients (aged < 60 years) who are without severe concomitant Ventricular assist devices Short term ventricular
support—eg awaiting
disease (for example, renal failure or malignancy).
Bradycardias are managed with conventional permanent
Novel surgical techniques Limited role (high mortality,
cardiac pacing, although a role is emerging for biventricular limited evidence of substantial
cardiac pacing in some patients with resistant severe congestive benefit)
heart failure. Implantable cardiodefibrillators are well
established in the treatment of some patients with resistant life PTCA = percutaneous transluminal coronary angioplasty; CABG = coronary
artery bypass graft.
threatening ventricular arrhythmias. New surgical approaches
such as cardiomyoplasty and ventricular reduction surgery
(Batista procedure) are rarely used owing to the high associated
morbidity and mortality and the lack of conclusive trial
evidence of substantial benefit.

The box about managing cachexia is based on recommendations from the

Scottish Intercollegiate Guidelines Network (SIGN) (publication No 35,
1999). Key references
x Demakis JG, Proskey A, Rahimtoola SH, Jamil M, Sutton GC, Rosen
G Jackson is consultant cardiologist in the department of cardiology, KM, et al. The natural course of alcoholic cardiomyopathy. Ann
Guy’s and St Thomas’s Hospital, London. Intern Med 1974;80:293-7.
x The Task Force of the Working Group on Heart Failure of the
The ABC of heart failure is edited by C R Gibbs, M K Davies, and European Society of Cardiology. Guidelines on the treatment of
G Y H Lip. CRG is research fellow and GYHL is consultant heart failure. Eur Heart J 1997;18:736-53.
cardiologist and reader in medicine in the university department of x Kostis JB, Rosen RC, Cosgrove NM, Shindler DM, Wilson AC.
medicine and the department of cardiology, City Hospital, Nonpharmacologic therapy improves functional and emotional
Birmingham; MKD is consultant cardiologist in the department of status in congestive heart failure. Chest 1994;106:996-1001.
cardiology, Selly Oak Hospital, Birmingham. The series will be x McKelvie RS, Teo KK, McCartney N, Humen D, Montague T, Yusuf
published as a book in the spring. S. Effects of exercise training in patients with congestive heart
failure: a critical review. J Am Coll Cardiol 1995;25:789-96.
BMJ 2000;320:366-9
BMJ VOLUME 320 5 FEBRUARY 2000 369
Clinical review Downloaded from on 1 October 2006

ABC of heart failure

Management: diuretics, ACE inhibitors, and nitrates
M K Davies, C R Gibbs, G Y H Lip

In the past 15 years several large scale, randomised controlled

Aims of heart failure management
trials have revolutionised the management of patients with
chronic heart failure. Although it is clear that some drugs To achieve improvement in symptoms
x Diuretics
improve symptoms, others offer both symptomatic and
x Digoxin
prognostic benefits, and the management of heart failure x ACE inhibitors
should be aimed at improving both quality of life and survival.
To achieve improvement in survival
Diuretics and angiotensin converting enzyme (ACE)
x ACE inhibitors
inhibitors, when combined with non-pharmacological x â blockers (for example, carvedilol and bisoprolol)
measures, remain the basis of treatment in patients with x Oral nitrates plus hydralazine
congestive heart failure. Digoxin has a possible role in some of x Spironolactone
these patients, however, and the potential benefits of â blockers
and spironolactone (an aldosterone antagonist) in chronic heart
failure are now increasingly recognised.

Diuretics are effective in providing symptomatic relief and In general, diuretics should be introduced
remain the first line treatment, particularly in the presence of at a low dose and the dose increased
oedema. Nevertheless, there is no direct evidence that loop and according to the clinical response. There
thiazide diuretics confer prognostic benefit in patients with are dangers, however, in either
congestive heart failure. undertreating or overtreating patients
with diuretics, and regular review is
Loop diuretics
Loop diuretics—frusemide (furosemide) and bumetanide—have
a powerful diuretic action, increasing the excretion of sodium
and water via their action on the ascending limb of the loop of
Henle. They have a rapid onset of action (intravenously 5
minutes, orally 1-2 hours; duration of action 4-6 hours). Oral
absorption of frusemide may be reduced in congestive heart How to use diuretics in advanced heart failure
failure, although the pharmacokinetics of bumetanide may x Optimise diuretic dose
allow improved bioavailability. x Consider combination diuretic treatment with a loop and thiazide
Patients receiving high dose diuretics (frusemide >80 mg or (or thiazide-like) diuretic
equivalent) should be monitored for renal and electrolyte x Consider combining a low dose of spironolactone with an ACE
inhibitor, provided that there is no evidence of hyperkalaemia
abnormalities. Hypokalaemia, which may precipitate
x Administer loop diuretics (either as a bolus or a continuous
arrhythmias, should be avoided, and potassium infusion) intravenously
supplementation, or concomitant treatment with a potassium
sparing agent, should generally be used unless
contraindicated—for example, in renal dysfunction with
potassium retention. Acute gout is a relatively common adverse
effect of treatment with high dose intravenous diuretics.

Thiazide diuretics 2
Distal tubule
Thiazides—such as bendrofluazide (bendroflumethiazide)—act Early Late
on the cortical diluting segment of the nephron. They are often Proximal
ineffective in elderly people, owing to the age related and heart tubule
failure mediated reduction in glomerular filtration rate.
Cortical collecting
Hyponatraemia and hypokalaemia are commonly associated
1 duct
with higher doses of thiazide diuretics, and potassium
supplementation, or concomitant treatment with a potassium
sparing agent, is usually needed with high dose thiazide therapy. Thick
In some patients with chronic severe congestive heart ascending
failure, particularly in the presence of chronic renal Medullary collecting
impairment, oedema may persist despite conventional oral Loop of
doses (frusemide 40-160 mg daily) of loop diuretics. In these Henle
patients, a thiazide diuretic (for example, bendrofluazide) or a
thiazide-like diuretic (for example, metolazone) may be Diagram of nephron showing sites of action of different diuretic classes:
combined with a loop diuretic. This combination blocks 1=loop (eg frusemide); 2=thiazide (eg bendrofluazide); and 3=potassium
reabsorption of sodium at different sites in the nephron sparing (eg amiloride)
428 BMJ VOLUME 320 12 FEBRUARY 2000
Downloaded from on 1 October 2006 Clinical review

(“double nephron blockade”), and this synergistic action leads

The two main potassium sparing
to a greater diuretic effect. The incidence of associated
diuretics, amiloride and spironolactone,
metabolic abnormalities is, however, increased, and such have a weak diuretic action when used
treatment should be started only under close supervision. In alone; amiloride is most commonly used
some patients, a large diuretic effect may occur soon after a in fixed dose combinations with a loop
combination regimen (loop diuretic plus either thiazide or diuretic—for example, co-amilofruse
metalozone) has been started. It is advisable, therefore, to
consider such a combination treatment on a twice weekly basis,
at least initially.


Probability of survival
Potassium sparing diuretics
Amiloride acts on the distal nephron, while spironolactone is a 0.9
competitive aldosterone inhibitor. Potassium sparing diuretics Placebo

have generally been avoided in patients receiving ACE 0.8

inhibitors, owing to the potential risk of hyperkalaemia.
Nevertheless, a recent randomised placebo controlled study, the 0.7
randomised aldactone evaluation study (RALES), reported that
hyperkalaemia is uncommon when low dose spironolactone 0.6

(<25 mg daily) is combined with an ACE inhibitor. Risk factors

for developing hyperkalaemia include spironolactone dose
> 50 mg/day, high doses of ACE inhibitor, or evidence of renal
impairment. It is recommended that measurement of the serum 0
0 3 6 9 12 15 18 21 24 27 30 33 36
creatinine and potassium concentrations is performed within Months
5-7 days of the addition of a potassium sparing diuretic to an
ACE inhibitor until the levels are stable, and then every one to Survival curve for randomised aldactone evaluation study (RALES) showing
three months. 30% reduction in all cause mortality when spironolactone (up to 25 mg) was
added to conventional treatment in patients with severe (New York Heart
Association class IV) chronic heart failure

ACE inhibitors
ACE inhibitors have consistently shown beneficial effects on
mortality, morbidity, and quality of life in large scale, prospective
Guidelines for using ACE inhibitors
clinical trials and are indicated in all stages of symptomatic
heart failure resulting from impaired left ventricular systolic x Stop potassium supplements and potassium sparing diuretics
x Omit (or reduce) diuretics for 24 hours before first dose
x Advise patient to sit or lie down for 2-4 hours after first dose
x Start low doses (for example, captopril 6.25 mg twice daily,
Mechanisms of action enalapril 2.5 mg once daily, lisinopril 2.5 mg once daily)
x Review after 1-2 weeks to reassess symptoms, blood pressure, and
ACE inhibitors inhibit the production of angiotensin II, a renal chemistry and electrolytes
potent vasoconstrictor and growth promoter, and increase x Increase dose unless there has been a rise in serum creatinine
concentrations of the vasodilator bradykinin by inhibiting its concentration (to > 200 ìmol/l) or potassium concentration (to
degradation. Bradykinin has been shown to have beneficial > 5.0 mmol/l)
effects associated with the release of nitric oxide and x Titrate to maximum tolerated dose, reassessing blood pressure and
prostacyclin, which may contribute to the positive renal chemistry and electrolytes after each dose titration
haemodynamic effects of the ACE inhibitors. Bradykinin may If patient is “high risk” consider hospital admission to start treatment
also be responsible, however, for some of the adverse effects,
such as dry cough, hypotension, and angio-oedema.
ACE inhibitors also reduce the activity of the sympathetic
nervous system as angiotensin II promotes the release of
noradrenaline and inhibits its reuptake. In addition, they also
improve â receptor density (causing their up regulation),
variation in heart rate, baroreceptor function, and autonomic
function (including vagal tone).

Clinical effects
Symptomatic left ventricular dysfunction
ACE inhibitors, when added to diuretics, improve symptoms,
exercise tolerance, and survival and reduce hospital admission
rates in chronic heart failure.
These beneficial effects are apparent in all grades of systolic
heart failure—that is, mild to moderate chronic heart failure (as
evident, for example, in the Munich mild heart failure study, the
vasodilator heart failure trials (V-HeFT), and the studies of left
ventricular dysfunction treatment trial (SOLVD-T)) and severe
chronic heart failure (as, for example, in the first cooperative Front view and side view of woman with angio-oedema related to treatment
north Scandinavian enalapril survival study (CONSENSUS I). with ACE inhibitors (published with permission of patient)
BMJ VOLUME 320 12 FEBRUARY 2000 429
Clinical review Downloaded from on 1 October 2006

Asymptomatic left ventricular dysfunction No of patients to be

treated per year to 330 66 76 22 2
ACE inhibitors have also been shown to be effective in prevent one death
asymptomatic patients with left ventricular systolic dysfunction. 1.2

Relative risk
The studies of left ventricular dysfunction prevention trial
(SOLVD-P) confirmed the benefit of ACE inhibitors in
asymptomatic left ventricular systolic dysfunction, where 0.8
enalapril reduced the development of heart failure and related 0.6
hospital admissions.

Left ventricular dysfunction after myocardial infarction 0.2

Large scale, randomised controlled trials—for example, the
(prevention) (treatment)
acute infarction ramipril efficacy (AIRE) study, the survival and Mortality in control
group (per 100 5.1 8.1 11.5 19.1 123.3
ventricular enlargement (SAVE) study, and the trial of patients/year)
trandolapril cardiac evaluation (TRACE)—have shown lower
ACE inhibitors in left ventricular dysfunction: best benefit for ACE
mortality in patients with impaired systolic function after inhibitors in higher risk group
myocardial infarction, irrespective of symptoms.

Slowing disease progression

ACE inhibitors also seem to influence the natural course of Meta-analysis of effects of ACE inhibitors on mortality and
chronic heart failure. The Munich mild heart failure study admissions in chronic heart failure
showed that ACE inhibitors combined with standard treatment
No Total No Active Risk
slowed the progression of heart failure in patients with mild
of of Placebo treatment reduction
symptoms, with significantly fewer patients in the active trials patients (%) (%) (%) P value
treatment group developing severe heart failure.
32 7105 32.6 22.4 35 < 0.001
Doses and tolerability
ACE inhibitors should be started at a low dose and gradually
titrated to the highest tolerated maintenance level. The recent
prospective assessment trial of lisinopril and survival (ATLAS)
randomised patients with symptomatic heart failure to low dose ACE inhibitors: high risk patients warranting hospital
(2.5-5 mg daily) or high dose (32.5-35 mg daily) lisinopril, and, admission for start of treatment
although there was no significant mortality difference, high x Severe heart failure (NYHA class IV) or decompensated heart
dose treatment was associated with a significant reduction in the failure
combined end point of all cause mortality and all cause x Low systolic blood pressure ( < 100 mm Hg)
x Resting tachycardia > 100 beats/minute
admissions to hospital. Adverse effects of the ACE inhibitors
x Low serum sodium concentration ( < 130 mmol/l)
include cough, dizziness, and a deterioration in renal function, x Other vasodilator treatment
although the overall incidence of hypotension and renal x Severe chronic obstructive airways disease and pulmonary heart
impairment in the CONSENSUS and SOLVD studies was only disease (cor pulmonale)
5%. Angio-oedema related to ACE inhibitors is rare, although
more common in patients of Afro-Caribbean origin than in
other ethnic groups.
ACE inhibitors can therefore be regarded as the
cornerstone of treatment in patients with all grades of Doses of ACE inhibitors used in large controlled trials
symptomatic heart failure and in patients with asymptomatic
Target Mean daily
left ventricular dysfunction. Every attempt should be made to
Trial ACE inhibitor dose (mg) dose (mg)
provide this treatment for patients, unless it is contraindicated,
and to use adequate doses. CONSENSUS Enalapril 20* 18.4
V-HeFT II Enalapril 10* 15.0
SOLVD Enalapril 10* 16.6
Angiotensin receptor antagonists SAVE Captopril 50† NA
Orally active angiotensin II type 1 receptor antagonists, such as *Twice daily; †three times daily. NA = information not available.
losartan, represent a new class of agents that offer an alternative
method of blocking the renin-angiotensin system. The effects of
angiotensin II receptor antagonists on haemodynamics,
neuroendocrine activity, and exercise tolerance resemble those Recommended maintenance doses of ACE inhibitors
of ACE inhibitors, although it still remains to be established
fully whether these receptor antagonists are an effective Drug Starting dose (mg) Maintenance dose (mg)
substitute for ACE inhibitors in patients with chronic heart
Captopril 6.25† 25-50†
Enalapril 2.5‡ 10*
The evaluation of losartan in the elderly (ELITE) study
Lisinopril 2.5‡ 5-20‡
compared losartan with captopril in patients aged 65 or over
Quinapril 2.5-5‡ 5-10*
with mild to severe congestive heart failure. Although the
Perindopril 2‡ 4‡
ELITE study was designed as a tolerability study, and survival
Ramipril 1.25-2.5‡ 2.5-5*
was not the primary end point, it did report a reduction in all
Trandolapril 0.5‡ 2-4‡
cause mortality (4.8% v 8.7%) in patients treated with losartan.
Important limitations of the ELITE study included the limited *Twice daily; †three times daily; ‡once daily.
430 BMJ VOLUME 320 12 FEBRUARY 2000
Downloaded from on 1 October 2006 Clinical review

size and the relatively short follow up. However, the recently
ELITE II study: the losartan heart failure survival study
reported ELITE II mortality study failed to show that treatment
with losartan was superior to captopril, although it confirmed x Multicentre, randomised, parallel group trial of captopril v losartan
in chronic stable heart failure
improved tolerability with losartan.
x 3152 patients; age > 60 years (mean age 71.5 years); NYHA class
ACE inhibitors, therefore, remain the treatment of choice in II-IV heart failure; mean follow up of 2 years
patients with left ventricular systolic dysfunction, although x No significant difference in all cause mortality between the
angiotensin II receptor antagonists are an appropriate captopril group (15.9%) and losartan group (17.7%)
alternative in patients who develop intolerable side effects from x Better tolerability with losartan (withdrawal rate 9.4%) than with
ACE inhibitors. captopril (14.5%)

Oral nitrates and hydralazine

The V-HeFT trials showed a survival benefit from combined
treatment with nitrates and hydralazine in patients with Vasodilator heart failure (V-HeFT) studies
symptomatic heart failure (New York Heart Association class
II-III). The V-HeFT II trial also showed a modest improvement
Study Comparison class* Outcome
in exercise capacity, although the nitrate and hydralazine
combination was less well tolerated than enalapril, owing to the V-HeFT I Hydralazine plus II, III Improved mortality
dose related adverse effects (dizziness and headaches). There is isosorbide with active treatment
dinitrate v placebo
no reproducible evidence of symptomatic improvement from
V-HeFT II Hydralazine plus II, III Enalapril superior to
other randomised placebo controlled trials, however, and
isosorbide hydralazine plus
survival rates were higher with ACE inhibitors than with the dinitrate v isosorbide dinitrate
nitrate and hydralazine combination (V-HeFT II trial). enalapril for survival
In general, oral nitrates should be considered in patients
*I = asymptomatic, II = mild, III = moderate, IV = severe.
with angina and impaired left ventricular systolic function. The
combination of nitrates and hydralazine is an alternative
regimen in patients with severe renal impairment, in whom
ACE inhibitors and angiotensin II receptor antagonists are
contraindicated. Although it is rational to consider the addition 0.75
Cumulative mortality

of a combination of nitrates and hydralazine in patients who Enalapril

continue to have severe symptoms despite optimal doses of Hydralazine plus isosorbide dinitrate
ACE inhibitors, no large scale trials have shown an additive 0.50
effect of these combinations.

Other vasodilators 0.25

Long acting dihydropyridine calcium channel blockers

generally have neutral effects in heart failure, although others, 0
such as diltiazem and verapamil, have negatively inotropic and 0 6 12 18 24 30 36 42 48 54 60
chronotropic properties, with the potential to exacerbate heart Months
failure. Two recent trials of the newer calcium channel blockers
Cumulative mortality in V-HeFT II trial: enalapril v hydralazine plus
amlodipine (the prospective randomised amlodipine survival isosorbide dinitrate in patients with congestive heart failure (mild to
evaluation (PRAISE) trial) and felodipine (V-HeFT III) in moderate)
patients with heart failure suggest that long acting calcium
antagonists may have beneficial effects in non-ischaemic dilated
cardiomyopathy, although further studies are in progress—for
example, PRAISE II. Importantly, these studies indicate that Key references
amlodipine and felodipine seem to be safe in patients with x Cohn JN, Johnson G, Ziesche S, Cobb F, Francis G, Tristani F, et al.
congestive heart failure and could therefore be used to treat A comparison of enalapril with hydralazine-isosorbide dinitrate in
angina and hypertension in this group of patients. the treatment of chronic congestive heart failure. N Engl J Med
The two tables on recommended doses of ACE inhibitors are adapted and x Cohn JN, Ziesche S, Smith R, Anand I, Dunkman WB, Loeb H, et al.
reproduced with permission from Remme WJ (Eur Heart J 1997;18: Effect of the calcium antagonist felodipine as supplementary
736-53). The meta-analysis table is adapted and used with permission from vasodilator therapy in patients with chronic heart failure treated
Garg R et al (JAMA 1995;273:1450-6). The graph showing the benefit of with enalapril. V-HeFT III. Circulation 1997;96:856-63.
ACE inhibitors in left ventricular dysfunction is adapted from Davey Smith x Packer M, O’Connor CM, Ghali JK, Pressler ML, Carson PE, Belkin
et al (BMJ 1994;308:73-4). RN, et al. Effect of amlodipine on morbidity and mortality in severe
chronic heart failure. N Engl J Med 1996;335:1107-14.
The ABC of heart failure is edited by C R Gibbs, M K Davies, and x Pitt B, Segal R, Martinez FA, Meurers G, Cowley AJ, Thomas I, et al.
Randomised trial of losartan versus captopril in patients over 65
G Y H Lip. CRG is research fellow and GYHL is consultant
with heart failure. Lancet 1997;349:747-52.
cardiologist and reader in medicine in the university department of
x Remme WJ. The treatment of heart failure. The Task Force of the
medicine and the department of cardiology, City Hospital,
Working Group on Heart Failure of the European Society of
Birmingham; MKD is consultant cardiologist in the department of Cardiology. Eur Heart J 1997;18:736-53.
cardiology, Selly Oak Hospital, Birmingham. The series will be x Pitt B, Zannad F, Remme WJ, Cody R, Castaigne A, Perez A, et al.
published as a book in the spring. The effect of spironolactone on morbidity and mortality in patients
with severe heart failure. N Engl J Med 1999;341:709-17.
BMJ 2000;320:428-31
BMJ VOLUME 320 12 FEBRUARY 2000 431
Clinical review

ABC of heart failure

Management: digoxin and other inotropes, â blockers, and
antiarrhythmic and antithrombotic treatment
C R Gibbs, M K Davies, G Y H Lip

Use of digoxin for heart failure varies between countries across Digoxin should be considered in patients
Europe, with high rates in Germany and low rates in the United with sinus rhythm plus (a) continued
Kingdom. It is potentially invaluable in patients with atrial symptoms of heart failure despite optimal
fibrillation and coexistent heart failure, improving control of the doses of diuretics and angiotensin
ventricular rate and allowing more effective filling of the converting enzyme inhibitors; (b) severe
ventricle. Digoxin is also used in patients with chronic heart left ventricular systolic dysfunction with
failure secondary to left ventricular systolic impairment, in sinus cardiac dilatation; or (c) recurrent hospital
admissions for heart failure
rhythm, who remain symptomatic despite optimal doses of
diuretics and angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitors, where
it acts as an inotrope.
Evidence of symptomatic benefit from digoxin in patients
with chronic heart failure in sinus rhythm has been reported in
several randomised placebo controlled trials and several smaller
trials. The RADIANCE and PROVED trials, for example,
reported that the withdrawal of digoxin from patients with
congestive heart failure who had already been treated with the 50
Death or admission to hospital
due to worsening heart failure (%)

drug was associated with worsening heart failure and increased
hospital readmission rates. The Digitalis Investigation Group’s 40
large study found that digoxin was associated with a
symptomatic improvement in patients with congestive heart 30
failure, when added to treatment with diuretics and angiotensin
converting enzyme inhibitors. Importantly, there were greater 20

absolute and relative benefits in the patients who had resistant

symptoms and more severe impairment of left ventricular 10
P< 0.001
systolic function. However, although there was a reduction in
the combined end points of admission and mortality resulting 0 4 8 12 16 20 24 28 32 36 40 44 48 52
from heart failure, there was no significant improvement in Months
overall survival. â Blockers were used rarely in the Digitalis
Incidence of death or admission to hospital due to worsening heart failure
Investigation Group’s study, and as a result it is not clear
in two groups of patients: those receiving digoxin and those receiving
whether digoxin is additive to both the â blockers and placebo (Digitalis Investigation Group’s study—see key references box at end
angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitors in congestive heart of article)

Digoxin: practical aspects

x Ensure a maintenance dose of 125-375 ìg (0.125-0.375 mg) daily
x Give a reduced maintenance dose in elderly people, when renal
impairment is present, and when used with drugs that increase
digoxin concentrations (amiodarone, verapamil)
x Concentrations should be monitored especially in cases of
uncertainty about whether therapeutic levels have been achieved
Study of effect of digoxin on mortality and morbidity in
(range 6 hours after dose: 1.2-1.9 ng/ml) patients with heart failure*
x Monitor potassium concentrations (avoid hypokalaemia) and renal Number of participants: 6800
function Design: prospective, randomised, double blind, placebo controlled
x Digoxin toxicity may be associated with: (a) adverse symptoms (for
Participants: left ventricular ejection fraction < 45%
example, nausea, vomiting, headache, confusion, visual symptoms);
and (b) arrhythmias (for example, atrioventricular junctional Intervention: randomised to digoxin (0.125-0.500 mg) or placebo;
rhythms, atrial tachycardia, atrioventricular block, ventricular follow up at 37 months
tachycardia) Results:
x Serious toxicity should be treated by correcting potassium x Reduced admissions to hospital owing to heart failure (greater
concentrations and with drugs such as â blockers and glycoside absolute and relative benefits in the patients with resistant
binding agents (cholestyramine), and in severe cases specific symptoms and more severe impairment of left ventricular systolic
digoxin antibodies (Digibind) function)
x No effect on overall survival
Source of information: Uretsky et al (J Am Coll Cardiol 1993;22:955) and Packer
et al (N Engl J Med 1993;329:1) *The Digitalis Investigation Group’s study (see key references box)
BMJ VOLUME 320 19 FEBRUARY 2000 495
Clinical review

Other inotropes
The potential role of inotropic agents other than digoxin in
chronic heart failure has been addressed in several studies. Inotropic drugs associated with increased mortality in
Although these drugs seem to improve symptoms in some chronic heart failure
patients, most have been associated with an increase in Inotropic
mortality. Drug Class activity
For example, the PRIME II trial (a prospective randomised
Xamoterol â Receptor antagonist Mild
study) examined ibopamine, a weak inotrope, in patients with
Dobutamine Dopamine, á, and â receptor Strong
chronic heart failure who were already receiving standard
treatment. An excess mortality was shown, however,
Ibopamine Dopamine, á, and â receptor Weak
particularly in those with severe symptoms; this was possibly antagonist
related to an excess of arrhythmias. In addition, a previous trial Amrinone Phosphodiesterase inhibitor Strong
evaluating intermittent dobutamine infusions in patients with
Enoximone Phosphodiesterase inhibitor Strong
chronic heart failure was stopped prematurely because of
Flosequinan Attenuates inositol triphosphate Weak
excess mortality in the group taking dobutamine. Xamoterol, a
Milrinone Phosphodiesterase inhibitor Strong
â receptor antagonist with mild agonist inotropic effects, also
Vesnarinone Phosphodiesterase inhibitor Mild
failed to show any positive benefits in patients with heart
In overall terms, no evidence exists at present to support the
use of oral catecholamine receptor (or postreceptor pathway)
stimulants in the treatment of chronic heart failure. Digoxin
remains the only (albeit weak) positive inotrope that is valuable
in the management of chronic heart failure. Potential mechanisms and benefits of
â blockers: improved left ventricular
function; reduced sympathetic tone;
â Blockers improved autonomic nervous system
balance; up regulation of â adrenergic
â Adrenoceptor blockers have traditionally been avoided in receptors; reduction in arrhythmias,
patients with heart failure due to their negative inotropic effects. ischaemia, further infarction, myocardial
However, there is now considerable clinical evidence to support fibrosis, and apoptosis
the use of â blockers in patients with chronic stable heart failure
resulting from left ventricular systolic dysfunction. Recent
randomised controlled trials in patients with chronic heart
failure have reported that combining â blockers with
conventional treatment with diuretics and angiotensin
converting enzyme inhibitors results in improvements in left
ventricular function, symptoms, and survival, as well as a Randomised, placebo controlled â blocker trials in
reduction in admissions to hospital. congestive heart failure
Recently, two randomised controlled trials have studied the
effects of carvedilol, a â blocker with á blocking and vasodilator NYHA
Study Treatment class* Outcome
properties, in patients with symptomatic heart failure. The US
multicentre carvedilol study programme was stopped early MDC Metoprolol II, III Improved clinical state
because of a highly significant (65%) mortality benefit in without effect on
patients receiving carvedilol, when compared to placebo, and survival. Reduction in
need for transplantation
the Australia/New Zealand heart failure study reported a 41%
in patients with dilated
reduction in the combined primary end point of all cause cardiomyopathy
hospital admission and mortality. Bisoprolol has also been CIBIS I Bisoprolol II, III Trend (non-significant)
studied, and, although the first cardiac insufficiency bisoprolol towards improved
study (CIBIS I) reported a trend towards a reduction in survival
mortality and need for cardiac transplantation, there was no ANZ trial Carvedilol I, II Carvedilol superior to
conclusive survival benefit. The recent CIBIS II study, however, placebo for morbidity
was stopped prematurely because of the beneficial effects of and mortality
active treatment on both morbidity and mortality. Metoprolol Carvedilol Carvedilol II, III Carvedilol superior to
has also shown similar prognostic advantages in the metoprolol (US) placebo for morbidity
and mortality
randomised intervention trial in heart failure (MERIT-HF),
CIBIS II Bisoprolol III, IV Bisoprolol superior to
which was also stopped early. In summary, evidence is now
placebo for morbidity
and mortality
MERIT-HF Metoprolol II, III Metoprolol superior to
Meta-analysis of effects of â blockers on mortality and placebo for morbidity
admissions to hospital in chronic heart failure and mortality

No of trials % receiving Risk Placebo groups in all trials received appropriate conventional treatment
(total No of % receiving active reduction P (diuretics alone; diuretics plus either digoxin or angiotensin converting enzyme
inhibitors; or diuretics plus digoxin and angiotensin converting enzyme
patients) placebo treatment (%) value inhibitors). Trials still in progress: COMET (carvedilol v metoprolol) and
COPERNICUS (carvedilol in severe chronic heart failure).
18 (3023) 24.6 15.8 38 < 0.001 *Classification of the New York Heart Association (I = no symptoms, II = mild,
III = moderate, IV = severe).
496 BMJ VOLUME 320 19 FEBRUARY 2000
Clinical review

available to support the use of â blockers in chronic heart

Summary of the cardiac insufficiency bisoprolol study II
failure, as the benefits supplement those already obtained from
angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitors.
Carvedilol is now licensed in the United Kingdom for use in x Randomised, double blind, parallel group study
x 2647 participants (class III-IV (moderate to severe) according to
mild to moderate chronic stable heart failure, although at
classification of the New York Heart Association)
present its use is still not recommended in patients with severe x Bisoprolol, increased in dose to a maximum of 10 mg a day
symptoms (New York Heart Association class IV). This latter x Trial stopped because of significant mortality benefit in patients
group has been underrepresented in the trials to date. treated with bisoprolol:
In general, â blockers should be started at very low doses, (a) 32% reduction in all cause mortality
with the dose being slowly increased, under expert supervision, (b) 32% reduction in admissions to hospital for worsening heart
to the target dose if tolerated. In the short term there may be a failure
deterioration in symptoms, which may improve with alterations (c) 42% reduction in sudden death
in other treatment, particularly diuretics. *CIBIS II Investigators and Committee (Lancet 1999;353:9-13)

Dose and titration of â blockers in large, placebo controlled heart failure trials

Weekly titration schedule: total daily dose (mg) Target

Initial dose total daily
â Blocker (mg) 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8–11 12–15 dose (mg)
Metoprolol (MDC trial) 5 10 15 20 50 75 100 150 NI NI 100–150
Carvedilol (US trials) 3.125 6.25 NI 12.5 NI 25 NI 50 NI NI 50
Bisoprolol (CIBIS II) 1.25 1.25 2.5 3.75 5 5 5 5 7.5 10 10

References: Waagstein F et al (Lancet 1993;342:1442-6), Packer M et al (N Engl J Med 1996;334:1349-55), and CIBIS II Investigators and Committee (Lancet
NI = no increase in dose.

Antithrombotic treatment
In patients with chronic heart failure the incidence of stroke
and thromboembolism is significantly higher in the presence of
atrial and left ventricular dilatation, particularly in severe left
ventricular dysfunction. Nevertheless, there is conflicting
evidence of benefit from routine treatment of patients with
heart failure who are in sinus rhythm with antithrombotic
treatment, although anticoagulation should be considered in
the presence of mobile ventricular thrombus, atrial fibrillation,
and severe cardiac impairment. Large scale, prospective
randomised controlled trials of antithrombotic treatment in
heart failure are in progress, such as the WATCH study (a trial
of warfarin and antiplatelet therapy); the full results are awaited
with interest.
The combination of atrial fibrillation and heart failure (or
evidence of left ventricular systolic dysfunction on
echocardiography) is associated with a particularly high risk of
thromboembolism, which is reduced by long term treatment
with warfarin. Aspirin seems to have little effect on the risk of
thromboembolism and overall mortality in such patients.

Echocardiogram showing thrombus at left ventricular apex in patient with

Antiarrhythmic treatment dilated cardiomyopathy (A=thrombus, B=left ventricle, C=left atrium)

Chronic heart failure and atrial fibrillation

Restoration and long term maintenance of sinus rhythm is less
successful in the presence of severe structural heart disease,
particularly when the atrial fibrillation is longstanding. In The use of class I antiarrhythmic agents
patients with a deterioration in symptoms that is associated with in patients with atrial fibrillation and
recent onset atrial fibrillation, treatment with amiodarone chronic heart failure substantially
increases the long term success rate of cardioversion. Digoxin is increases the risk of mortality
otherwise appropriate for controlling ventricular rate in most
patients with heart failure and chronic atrial fibrillation, with the
addition of amiodarone in resistant cases.
BMJ VOLUME 320 19 FEBRUARY 2000 497
Clinical review

Chronic heart failure and ventricular arrhythmias

Ventricular arrhythmias are a common cause of death in severe

Percentage of patients alive

heart failure. Precipitating or aggravating factors should thus be
addressed, including electrolyte disturbance (for example, 0.9 Control
hypokalaemia, hypomagnesaemia), digoxin toxicity, drugs
causing electrical instability (for example, antiarrhythmic drugs, 0.8
antidepressants), and continued or recurrent myocardial
Amiodarone is effective for the symptomatic control of 0.6
ventricular arrhythmias in chronic heart failure, although most
studies have reported that long term antiarrhythmic treatment 0.5
with amiodarone has a neutral effect on survival. An
Argentinian trial (the GESICA study) of empirical amiodarone 0 90 180 270 360 450 540 630 720
in patients with chronic heart failure reported, however, that Days from randomisation
active treatment was associated with a 28% reduction in total
Survival curves from GESICA trial (see key references box), showing
mortality, although this trial included a high incidence of difference between patients taking amiodarone and controls
patients with non-ischaemic heart failure. In contrast, in the
survival trial of antiarrhythmic therapy in congestive heart
failure (CHF-STAT), amiodarone did not improve overall
Summary of drug management in chronic heart failure
survival, although there was a significant (46%) reduction in
cardiac death and admission to hospital in the patients with Drug class Potential therapeutic role
non-ischaemic chronic heart failure.
Diuretics Symptomatic improvement of congestion.
In general, amiodarone should probably be reserved for
Spironolactone improves survival in severe
patients with chronic heart failure who also have symptomatic (NYHA class IV) heart failure
ventricular arrhythmias. Interest has also developed in Angiotensin Improved symptoms, exercise capacity, and
implantable cardioverter defibrillators, which reduce the risk of converting enzyme survival in patients with asymptomatic and
sudden death in high risk patients with ventricular arrhythmias (ACE) inhibitors symptomatic systolic dysfunction
(MADIT and AVID studies), although the role of these devices Digoxin Improved symptoms, exercise capacity, and
in patients with chronic heart failure still remains to be fewer admissions to hospital
established. Angiotensin II Treatment of symptomatic heart failure in
receptor antagonists patients intolerant to ACE inhibitors*
Nitrates and Improved survival in symptomatic patients
hydralazine intolerant to ACE inhibitors or angiotensin II
receptor antagonists*
â Blockers Improved symptoms and survival in stable
patients who are already receiving ACE
Key references
x Australia/New Zealand Heart Failure Research Collaborative Amiodarone Prevention of arrhythmias in patients with
Group. Randomized, placebo-controlled trial of carvedilol in symptomatic ventricular arrhythmias
patients with congestive heart failure due to ischaemic heart
disease. Lancet 1997;349:375-80. *Recommendations of when these agents might be considered (the use of these
x Lip GYH. Intracardiac thrombus formation in cardiac impairment: agents has not been addressed in randomised trials of patients intolerant to
investigation and the role of anticoagulant therapy. Postgrad Med J ACE inhibitors).
x Massie BM, Fisher SG, Radford M, Deedwania PC, Singh BN,
The survival graph is adapted with permission from Doval et al (Lancet
Fletcher RD, et al for the CHF-STAT Investigators. Effect of 1994;344:493-8). The table of inotropic drugs is adapted with permission
amiodarone on clinical status and left ventricular function in from Niebauer et al (Lancet 1997;349:966). The table of results of a
patients with congestive heart failure. Circulation 1996;93:2128-34. meta-analysis of effects of â blockers is adapted with permission from
x MERIT-HF Study Group. Effect of metoprolol CR/XL in chronic Lechat P et al (Circulation 1998;98:1184-91). The table on doses and titra-
heart failure: metoprolol CR/XL randomised intervention trial in tion of â blockers is adapted with permission from Remme WJ (Eur Heart J
congestive heart failure (MERIT-HF). Lancet 1999;353:2001-7. 1997;18:736-53).
x Doval HC, Nul DR, Grancelli HO, Perrone SV, Bortman GR, Curiel
R, et al. Randomised trial of low-dose amiodarone in severe The ABC of heart failure is edited by C R Gibbs, M K Davies, and
congestive heart failure [GESICA trial]. Lancet 1994;344:493-8. G Y H Lip. CRG is research fellow and GYHL is consultant
x Packer M, Bristow MR, Cohn JN, Colucci WS, Fowler MB, Gilbert cardiologist and reader in medicine in the university department of
EM, et al. Effect of carvedilol on morbidity and mortality in patients medicine and the department of cardiology, City Hospital,
with chronic heart failure. N Engl J Med 1996;334:1349-55. Birmingham; MKD is consultant cardiologist in the department of
x Digitalis Investigation Group. The effect of digoxin on mortality and cardiology, Selly Oak Hospital, Birmingham. The series will be
morbidity in patients with heart failure. N Engl J Med 1997; published as a book in the spring.
BMJ 2000;320:495-8

498 BMJ VOLUME 320 19 FEBRUARY 2000
Downloaded from on 1 October 2006 Clinical review

ABC of heart failure

Acute and chronic management strategies
T Millane, G Jackson, C R Gibbs, G Y H Lip

Acute and chronic management strategies in heart failure are

aimed at improving both symptoms and prognosis, although Survival rates (%) compared with chronic heart failure
management in individual patients will depend on the
At 1 year At 2 years At 3 years
underlying aetiology and the severity of the condition. It is
imperative that the diagnosis of heart failure is accompanied by Breast cancer 88 80 72
an urgent attempt to establish its cause, as timely intervention Prostate cancer 75 64 55
may greatly improve the prognosis in selected cases—for Colon cancer 56 48 42
example, in patients with severe aortic stenosis. Heart failure 67 41 24

Management of acute heart failure

Assessment Killip classification
Common presenting features include anxiety, tachycardia, and
dyspnoea. Pallor and hypotension are present in more severe Hospital
cases: the triad of hypotension (systolic blood pressure < 90
Class Clinical features (%)
mm Hg), oliguria, and low cardiac output constitutes a
diagnosis of cardiogenic shock. Severe acute heart failure and Class I No signs of left ventricular dysfunction 6
cardiogenic shock may be related to an extensive myocardial Class II S3 gallop with or without mild to 30
infarction, sustained cardiac arrhythmias (for example, atrial moderate pulmonary congestion
fibrillation or ventricular tachycardia), or mechanical problems Class III Acute severe pulmonary oedema 40
(for example, acute papillary muscle rupture or postinfarction Class IV Shock syndrome 80-90
ventricular septal defect).
Severe acute heart failure is a medical emergency, and
effective management requires an assessment of the underlying
cause, improvement of the haemodynamic status, relief of
pulmonary congestion, and improved tissue oxygenation.
Clinical and radiographic assessment of these patients provides
a guide to severity and prognosis: the Killip classification has
been developed to grade the severity of acute and chronic heart

Basic measures should include sitting the patient in an upright
position with high concentration oxygen delivered via a face
mask. Close observation and frequent reassessment are
required in the early hours of treatment, and patients with acute
severe heart failure, or refractory symptoms, should be
monitored in a high dependency unit. Urinary catheterisation
facilitates accurate assessment of fluid balance, while arterial
blood gases provide valuable information about oxygenation
and acid-base balance. The “base excess” is a guide to actual Chest x ray film in patient with acute pulmonary oedema
tissue perfusion in patients with acute heart failure: a worsening
(more negative) base excess generally indicates lactic acidosis,
which is related to anaerobic metabolism, and is a poor
Basic measures
prognostic feature. Correction of hypoperfusion will correct the
metabolic acidosis; bicarbonate infusions should be reserved for Sit patient upright
only the most refractory cases.
Intravenous loop diuretics, such as frusemide (furosemide), High dose oxygen Corrects hypoxia

induce transient venodilatation, when administered to patients

Initial drug treatment
with pulmonary oedema, and this may lead to symptomatic
improvement even before the onset of diuresis. Loop diuretics Intravenous loop diuretics Cause venodilatation and diuresis
also increase the renal production of vasodilator prostaglandins.
This additional benefit is antagonised by the administration of Intravenous opiates/opioids Reduce anxiety and preload
(morphine/diamorphine) (venodilatation)
prostaglandin inhibitors, such as non-steroidal
anti-inflammatory drugs, and these agents should be avoided Intravenous, buccal, or Reduce preload and afterload, ischaemia
where possible. Parenteral opiates or opioids (morphine or sublingual nitrates and pulmonary artery pressures
diamorphine) are an important adjunct in the management of
severe acute heart failure, by relieving anxiety, pain, and distress Acute heart failure: basic measures and initial drug treatment
BMJ VOLUME 320 26 FEBRUARY 2000 559
Clinical review Downloaded from on 1 October 2006

and reducing myocardial oxygen demand. Intravenous opiates

Second line drug treatment
and opioids also produce transient venodilatation, thus
reducing preload, cardiac filling pressures, and pulmonary Inotropes: β agonists
Increase myocardial contractility
Nitrates (sublingual, buccal, and intravenous) may also Dopamine (low dose)
Increases renal perfusion, sodium
reduce preload and cardiac filling pressures and are particularly excretion, and urine flow

valuable in patients with both angina and heart failure. Sodium

Inotropes: phosphodiesterase Increase myocardial contractility and
nitroprusside is a potent, directly acting vasodilator, which is inhibitors (enoximone) venodilatation
normally reserved for refractory cases of acute heart failure.
Weak inotropic effect, diuretic effect,
Intravenous aminophylline
bronchodilating effect
Short term inotropic support
In cases of severe refractory heart failure in which the cardiac Advanced management
output remains critically low, the circulation can be supported Assisted ventilation
Reduces myocardial oxygen demand;
improves alveolar ventilation
for a critical period of time with inotropic agents. For example,
dobutamine and dopamine have positive inotropic actions, Circulatory assist devices Give mechanical support
acting on the â1 receptors in cardiac muscle. Phosphodiesterase
inhibitors (for example, enoximone) are less commonly used,
Acute heart failure: second line drug treatment and advanced management
and long term use of these agents is associated with increased
mortality. Intravenous aminophylline is now rarely used for
treating acute heart failure. Inotropic agents in general increase
the potential for cardiac arrhythmias.
Intravenous inotropes and circulatory assist devices
x Short term support with intravenous inotropes or circulatory assist
Chronic heart failure devices, or with both, may temporarily improve haemodynamic
status and peripheral perfusion
Chronic heart failure can be “compensated” or x Such support can act as a bridge to corrective valve surgery or
“decompensated.” In compensated heart failure, symptoms are cardiac transplantation in acute and chronic heart failure
stable, and many overt features of fluid retention and
pulmonary oedema are absent. Decompensated heart failure
refers to a deterioration, which may present either as an acute
episode of pulmonary oedema or as lethargy and malaise, a
Management of chronic heart failure
reduction in exercise tolerance, and increasing breathlessness
on exertion. The cause or causes of decompensation should be General advice
considered and identified; they may include recurrent x Counselling—about symptoms and compliance
x Social activity and employment
ischaemia, arrhythmias, infections, and electrolyte disturbance.
x Vaccination (influenza, pneumococcal)
Atrial fibrillation is common, and poor control of ventricular x Contraception
rate during exercise despite adequate control at rest should be
General measures
addressed. x Diet (for example, reduce salt and fluid intake)
Common features of chronic heart failure include x Stop smoking
breathlessness and reduced exercise tolerance, and x Reduce alcohol intake
management is directed at relieving these symptoms and x Take exercise
improving quality of life. Secondary but important objectives Treatment options—pharmacological
are to improve prognosis and reduce hospital admissions. x Diuretics (loop and thiazide)
x Angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitors
x â Blockers
Initial management x Digoxin
Non-pharmacological and lifestyle measures should be x Spironolactone
addressed. Loop diuretics are valuable if there is evidence of x Vasodilators (hydralazine/nitrates)
fluid overload, although these may be reduced once salt and x Anticoagulation
water retention has been treated. Angiotensin converting x Antiarrhythmic agents
x Positive inotropic agents
enzyme inhibitors should be introduced at an early stage, in the
absence of clear contraindications. Angiotensin II receptor Treatment options—devices and surgery
x Revascularisation (percutaneous transluminal coronary angioplasty
antagonists are an appropriate alternative in patients who are
and coronary artery bypass graft)
intolerant to angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitors. â x Valve replacement (or repair)
Blockers (carvedilol, bisoprolol, metoprolol) are increasingly x Pacemaker or implantable cardiodefibrillator
used in stable patients, although these agents require low dose x Ventricular assist devices
initiation and cautious titration under specialist supervision. x Heart transplantation
Oral digoxin has a role in patients with left ventricular systolic
impairment, in sinus rhythm, who remain symptomatic despite
optimal doses of diuretics and angiotensin converting enzyme
inhibitors. Warfarin should be considered in patients with atrial
fibrillation. Supervised exercise programmes are of
proved benefit, and regular exercise
should be encouraged in patients with
Severe congestive heart failure
chronic stable heart failure
Despite conventional treatment with diuretics and angiotensin
converting enzyme inhibitors, hospital admission may be
necessary in severe congestive heart failure. Fluid restriction is
560 BMJ VOLUME 320 26 FEBRUARY 2000
Downloaded from on 1 October 2006 Clinical review

important—fluid intake should be reduced to 1-1.5 litres/24 h,

and dietary salt restriction may be helpful.
Short term bed rest is valuable until signs and symptoms
improve: rest reduces the metabolic demand and increases Weighing the patient daily is valuable in
renal perfusion, thus improving diuresis. Although bed rest monitoring the response to treatment
potentiates the action of diuretics, it increases the risk of venous
thromboembolism, and prophylactic subcutaneous heparin
should be considered in immobile inpatients. Full
anticoagulation is not advocated routinely unless concurrent
atrial fibrillation is present, although it may be considered in
patients with very severe impairment of left ventricular systolic Education, counselling, and support
function, associated with significant ventricular dilatation. x A role is emerging for heart failure liaison nurses in educating and
Intravenous loop diuretics may be administered to overcome supporting patients and their families, promoting long term
the short term problem of gut oedema and reduced absorption compliance, and supervising treatment changes in the community
of tablets, and these may be used in conjunction with an oral x Depression is common, underdiagnosed, and often undertreated;
thiazide or thiazide-like diuretic (metolazone). Low dose counselling is therefore important for patients and families, and the
newer antidepressants (particularly the selective serotonin reuptake
spironolactone (25 mg) improves morbidity and mortality in
inhibitors) seem to be well tolerated and are useful in selected
severe (New York Heart Association class IV) heart failure, patients
when combined with conventional treatment (loop diuretics
and angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitors). Potassium
concentrations should be closely monitored after the addition
of spironolactone.

Treatment of left ventricular systolic dysfunction

• Confirm diagnosis by echocardiography
• If possible, discontinue aggravating drugs (eg non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs)
• Address non-pharmacological and lifestyle measures

Symptomatic Asymptomatic

Add loop diuretic (eg frusemide)

Angiotensin converting
Angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitor enzyme inhibitor

Consider β blocker* in patients with chronic, stable condition

Persisting clinical features of heart failure Atrial fibrillation Angina

Options • Optimise dose of loop diuretic Options • Digoxin Options • β blocker (if not already given)
• Low dose spironolactone (25mg once a day) • β blocker (if not already given) • Oral nitrates
• Digoxin • Warfarin • Calcium antagonist
• Combine loop and thiazide diuretics (eg amlodipine)
• Oral nitrates/ hydralazine

Consider specialist referral in patients with atrial fibrillation (electrical cardioversion or In the United Kingdom carvedilol is licensed
other antiarrhythmic agents - eg amiodarone - may be indicated), angina (coronary for mild to moderate symptoms and bisoprolol
angiography and revascularisation may be indicated), or persistent or severe symptoms for moderate to severe congestive heart failure

* Initial low dose (eg carvedilol, bisoprolol, metoprolol) with cautious titration under expert supervision

Example of management algorithm for left ventricular dysfunction

Special procedures
Intra-aortic balloon pumping and mechanical devices
Intra-aortic balloon counterpulsation and left ventricular assist
devices are used as bridges to corrective valve surgery, cardiac
transplantation, or coronary artery bypass surgery in the
presence of poor cardiac function. Mechanical devices are
indicated if (a) there is a possibility of spontaneous recovery (for
example, peripartum cardiomyopathy, myocarditis) or (b) as a
bridge to cardiac surgery (for example, ruptured mitral
papillary muscle, postinfarction ventricular septal defect) or
transplantation. Intra-aortic balloon counterpulsation is the Left ventricular
most commonly used form of mechanical support. assist device
BMJ VOLUME 320 26 FEBRUARY 2000 561
Clinical review Downloaded from on 1 October 2006

Revascularisation and other operative strategies

Indications and contraindications to cardiac transplantation
Impaired ventricular function in itself is not an absolute
in adults
contraindication to cardiac surgery, although the operative risks
are increased. Ischaemic heart disease is the most common Indications
x End stage heart failure—for example, ischaemic heart disease and
precursor of chronic heart failure in Britain: coronary
dilated cardiomyopathy
ischaemia should be identified and revascularisation considered x Rarely, restrictive cardiomyopathy and peripartum cardiomyopathy
with coronary artery bypass surgery or occasionally x Congenital heart disease (often combined heart-lung
percutaneous coronary angioplasty. The concept of transplantation required)
“hibernating” myocardium is increasingly recognised, although Absolute contraindications
the most optimal and practical methods of identifying x Recent malignancy (other than basal cell and squamous cell
hibernation remain open to debate. Revascularisation of carcinoma of the skin)
hibernating myocardium may lead to an improvement in the x Active infection (including HIV, Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C with liver
overall left ventricular function. disease)
x Systemic disease which is likely to affect life expectancy
Correction of valve disease, most commonly in severe aortic
x Significant pulmonary vascular resistance
stenosis or mitral incompetence (not secondary to left
Relative contraindications
ventricular dilatation), relieves a mechanical cause of heart
x Recent pulmonary embolism
failure; closure of an acute ventricular septal defect or mitral x Symptomatic peripheral vascular disease
valve surgery for acute mitral regurgitation, complicating a x Obesity
myocardial infarction, may be lifesaving. Surgical excision of a x Severe renal impairment
left ventricular aneurysm (aneurysectomy) is appropriate in x Psychosocial problems—for example, lack of social support, poor
selected cases. Novel surgical procedures such as extensive compliance, psychiatric illness
x Age (over 60-65 years)
ventricular reduction (Batista operation) and cardiomyoplasty
have been associated with successful outcome in a small
number of patients, although the high mortality, and the limited
evidence of substantial benefit, has restricted the widespread use
of these procedures.

Mean age of donors (years)

No of transplantations 4500 31
4000 30
Cardiac transplantation Age of donors
3500 29
The outcome in cardiac transplantation is now good, with long
3000 28
term improvements in survival and quality of life in patients
with severe heart failure. However, although the demand for 2500 27

cardiac transplantation has increased over recent years, the 2000 26

number of transplant operations has remained stable, owing 1500 25
primarily to limited availability of donor organs. 1000 24
The procedure now carries a perioperative mortality of less
500 23
than 10%, with approximate one, five, and 10 year survival rates
0 22
of 92%, 75%, and 60% respectively (much better outcomes than
with optimal drug treatment, which is associated with a one year
mortality of 30-50% in advanced heart failure). Cardiac
transplantation should be considered in patients with an Number of heart transplantations worldwide and mean age of donors
estimated one year survival of < 50%. Well selected patients
over 55-60 years have a survival rate comparable to those of
younger patients. Patients need strong social and psychological
support; transplant liaison nurses are valuable in this role. Key references
The long term survival of the transplanted human heart is x Dargie HJ, McMurray JJ. Diagnosis and management of heart
compromised by accelerated graft atherosclerosis which results failure. BMJ 1994;308:321-8.
in small vessel coronary artery disease and an associated x ACC/AHA Task Force Report. Guidelines for the evaluation and
management of heart failure. J Am Coll Cardiol 1995;26:1376-98.
deterioration in left ventricular performance. This can occur as
x Hunt SA. Current status of cardiac transplantation. JAMA
early as three months and is the major cause of graft loss after 1998;280:1692-8.
the first year. The anti-rejection regimens currently used may x Remme WJ. The treatment of heart failure. The Task Force of the
result in an acceleration of pre-existing atherosclerotic vascular Working Group on Heart Failure of the European Society of
disease—hence the exclusion of patients who already have Cardiology. Eur Heart J 1997;18:736-53.
significant peripheral vascular disease. Rejection is now a less
serious problem, with the use of cyclosporin and other
immunosuppressant agents.
T Millane is consultant cardiologist in the department of cardiology,
Nevertheless, the supply of donors limits the procedure. The
City Hospital, Birmingham; G Jackson is consultant cardiologist in the
Eurotransplant database (1990-5) indicates that 25% of patients department of cardiology at Guy’s and St Thomas’s Hospital, London.
listed for transplantation die on the waiting list, with 60%
receiving transplants at two years (most within 12 months). The ABC of heart failure is edited by C R Gibbs, M K Davies, and
Although ventricular assist devices may be valuable during the G Y H Lip. CRG is research fellow and GYHL is consultant
wait for transplantation, the routine use of xenotransplants is cardiologist and reader in medicine in the university department of
unlikely in the short or medium term. medicine and the department of cardiology, City Hospital,
Birmingham; MKD is consultant cardiologist in the department of
The graph showing cardiac transplantations worldwide is adapted with cardiology, Selly Oak Hospital, Birmingham. The series will be
permission from Hosenpud et al (J Heart Lung Transplant 1998;17:656-8). published as a book in the spring.
The table showing survival rates is adapted from Hobbs (Heart 1999;
82(suppl IV):IV8-10). BMJ 2000;320:559-62
562 BMJ VOLUME 320 26 FEBRUARY 2000
Clinical review Downloaded from on 1 October 2006

ABC of heart failure

Heart failure in general practice
F D R Hobbs, R C Davis, G Y H Lip

Management of heart failure in general practice has been

Heart failure affects at least 20 patients
hampered by difficulties in diagnosing the condition and by on the average general practitioner’s list
perceived difficulties in starting and monitoring treatment in
the community. Nevertheless, improved access to diagnostic
testing and increased confidence in the safety of treatment
should help to improve the primary care management of heart
failure. With improved survival and reduced admission rates
(achieved by effective treatment) and a reduction in numbers of
hospital beds, the community management of heart failure is
likely to become increasingly important and the role of general
practitioners even more crucial. Clinical assessment of patient,
history, and hospital records
together suggest heart failure
Diagnostic accuracy
Heart failure is a difficult condition to diagnose clinically, and
No Echocardiography shows Yes Heart failure: start
hence many patients thought to have heart failure by their moderate or severe left angiotensin converting
general practitioners may not have any demonstrable ventricular dysfunction? enzyme inhibitor
abnormality of cardiac function on objective testing.
A study from Finland reported that only 32% of patients Not available
suspected of having heart failure by primary care doctors had Yes
definite heart failure (as determined by a clinical and Yes
Documented previous Probability of heart
radiographic scoring system). A recent study in the United myocardial infarction? failure high: are you
Kingdom showed that only 29% of 122 patients referred to a confident of diagnosis?
“rapid access” clinic with a new diagnosis of heart failure fully No, inconclusive,
met the definition of heart failure approved by the European or not known
Society of Cardiology—that is, appropriate symptoms, objective
Electrocardiogram abnormal?
evidence of cardiac dysfunction, and response to treatment if (Q waves, left bundle
doubt remained. branch block)
Similar findings have been reported in the No
echocardiographic heart of England screening (ECHOES) No, inconclusive,
or not known
study, in which only about 22% of the patients with a diagnosis
of heart failure in their general practice records had definite
Chest x ray film shows Yes
impairment of left ventricular systolic function on pulmonary congestion
echocardiography, with a further 16% having borderline or cardiomegaly?
impairment. In addition, 23% had atrial fibrillation, with over
half of these patients having normal left ventricular systolic No, inconclusive,
or not known
contraction. Finally, a minority of patients may have clinical
heart failure with normal systolic contraction and abnormal Heart failure
Remaining unexplained
Refer for further
diastolic function; management of such patients with diastolic unlikely indication of heart failure? investigation
dysfunction is very different from those with impaired systolic
Diagnostic algorithm for suspected heart failure in primary care. Based on
guidance from the north of England evidence based guideline development
Open access echocardiography and project (see key references box)

Owing to the non-invasive nature of echocardiography, its high
acceptability to patients, and its usefulness in assessing
ventricular size and function, as well as valvar heart disease,
many general practitioners now want direct access to
echocardiography services for their patients. Although open Recent studies have shown that with
access echocardiography services are available in some districts appropriate education of general
in Britain, many specialists still have reservations about practitioners the workload of an open
introducing such services because of financial and staffing issues access echocardiography service can be
and concern that general practitioners would have difficulty manageable
interpreting technical reports. The cost of echocardiography
(£50 to £70 per patient) is relatively small, however, compared
with the cost of expensive treatment for heart failure that may
not be needed. The cost is also small compared with the costs of
626 BMJ VOLUME 320 4 MARCH 2000
Downloaded from on 1 October 2006 Clinical review

hospital admission, which may be avoided by appropriate, early

treatment of heart failure.
One approach may be to refer only patients with abnormal
baseline investigations as heart failure is unlikely if the Open access services have proved
popular and are likely to become even
electrocardiogram and chest x ray examination are normal and
more common; indeed,
there are no predisposing factors for heart failure—for example,
echocardiographic screening of patients
previous myocardial infarction, angina, hypertension, and in the high risk categories may well be
diabetes mellitus. Requiring general practitioners to perform justified and cost effective
electrocardiography and arrange chest radiography, as a
complement to careful assessment of the risk factors for heart
failure, is likely to reduce substantially the number of
inappropriate referrals to an open access echocardiography

Role of natriuretic peptides

Given the difficulties in diagnosing heart failure on clinical
grounds alone, and current limited access to echocardiography
and specialist assessment, the possibility of using a blood test in
Sensitivity and specificity of brain natriuretic peptides in
general practice to diagnose heart failure is appealing.
diagnosis of heart failure
Determining plasma concentrations of brain natriuretic
peptide, a hormone found at an increased level in patients with New diagnosis of
left ventricular systolic dysfunction, may be one option. Such a heart failure Left ventricular
blood test has the potential to screen out patients in whom (primary care) systolic dysfunction
heart failure is extremely unlikely and identify those in whom Sensitivity 97% 77%
the probability of heart failure is high—for example, in patients
Specificity 84% 87%
with suspected heart failure who have low plasma
Positive predictive
concentrations of brain natriuretic peptide, the heart is unlikely
value 70% 16%
to be the cause of the symptoms, whereas those who have
higher concentrations warrant further assessment.

Primary prevention and early detection

General practitioners have a vital role in the early detection and
treatment of the main risk factors for heart failure—namely, Other cardiovascular disease
Detect and treat hypertension prevention strategies
hypertension and ischaemic heart disease—and other (eg avoid smoking, lipid lowering)
cardiovascular risk factors, such as smoking and
hyperlipidaemia. The Framingham study has shown a decline in
hypertension as a risk factor for heart failure over the years, Prevent progression to
which probably reflects improvements in treatment. Ischaemic symptomatic heart failure
heart disease, however, remains very common. Aspirin, â
blockers, and lipid lowering treatment, as well as smoking
cessation, can reduce progression to myocardial infarction in Angiotensin converting enzyme
inhibitors in asymptomatic left
patients with angina, and â blockers may also reduce ischaemic ventricular dysfunction
left ventricular dysfunction. Early detection of left ventricular
dysfunction in “high risk” asymptomatic patients—for example, Strategies for preventing progression to symptomatic heart failure in high
those who have already had a myocardial infarction or who risk asymptomatic patients
have hypertension or atrial fibrillation—and treatment with
angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitors can minimise the
progression to symptomatic heart failure.
Starting angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitors in chronic
Starting and monitoring drug treatment heart failure in general practice
x Measure blood pressure and determine electrolytes and creatinine
Both hospital doctors and general practitioners used to be concentrations before treatment
concerned about the initiation of angiotensin converting x Consider referring “high risk” patients to hospital for assessment
enzyme inhibitors outside hospital. It is now accepted, however, and supervised start of treatment
that most patients with heart failure can safely be established on x Angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitors should be used with
some caution in patients with severe peripheral vascular disease
such treatment without needing hospital admission. The
because of the possible association with atherosclerotic renal artery
previous concern—over first dose hypotension—was heightened stenosis
by the initial experience of large doses of captopril, especially in x Doses should be gradually increased over two to three weeks,
those with severe heart failure, who are at greater risk of aiming to reach the doses used in large clinical trials
problems. Patients with mild or moderate heart failure, who x Blood pressure and electrolytes or renal chemistry should be
have normal renal function and a systolic blood pressure over monitored after start of treatment, initially at one week then less
frequently depending on the patient and any abnormalities
100 mm Hg and who have stopped taking diuretics for at least
24 hours rarely have problems, especially if the first dose of an
BMJ VOLUME 320 4 MARCH 2000 627
Clinical review Downloaded from on 1 October 2006

angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitor is taken at night,

before going to bed. Conditions indicating that referral to a specialist is necessary
x Diagnosis in doubt or when specialist investigation and
management may help
Heart failure clinics x Significant murmurs and valvar heart disease
x Arrhythmias—for example, atrial fibrillation
Dedicated heart failure clinics within general practices, run by a x Secondary causes—for example, thyroid disease
doctor or nurse with an interest in the subject, have the x Severe left ventricular impairment—for example, ejection fraction
potential to improve the care of patients with the condition, as < 20%
x Pre-existing (or developing) metabolic abnormalities—for example,
they have for other chronic conditions, such as diabetes.
hyponatraemia (sodium < 130 mmol/l) and renal impairment
Blood should be taken for electrolytes and renal chemistry x Severe associated vascular disease—for example, caution with
at least every 12 months, but more frequently in new cases and angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitors in case of coexisting
when drug treatment has been changed or results have been renovascular disease
abnormal. The clinics should be used to educate patients about x Relative hypotension (systolic blood pressure < 100 mm Hg before
their condition, particularly in relation to their treatment, with starting angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitors)
messages being reinforced and drug treatment simplified and x Poor response to treatment
rationalised where appropriate. Patients whose condition is
deteriorating may be referred for specialist opinion.
Variables that should be monitored in patients with
established heart failure comprise changes in symptoms and
severity (New York Heart Association classification); weight; Examples of topics for audit of heart failure management in
blood pressure; and signs of fluid retention or excessive diuresis. general practice
Means of diagnosis
Has left ventricular function been assessed, by echocardiography or
Impact of heart failure on the other means?
community Appropriateness of treatment
Are all appropriate patients taking angiotensin converting enzyme
After a patient is diagnosed as having heart failure, substantial inhibitors (unless there is a documented contraindication)? Have
monitoring by the general practitioner is required. In our doses been increased where possible to those used in the large clinical
survey of heart failure in three general practices from the west
of Birmingham, 44% of general practice consultations (average Monitoring treatment
Were blood pressure and renal function recorded before and after
2.6 visits per patient) took place within three months of the first start of angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitors, and at intervals
diagnosis of heart failure, 23% were at three to six months (1.4 subsequently?
visits per patient), and 33% were at six to 12 months (2.0 visits
per patient). Such management requires regular supervision
and audit.

Relevance to hospital practice

Causes of readmission in patients with heart failure
In our survey of acute hospital admissions of patients with heart
failure to a city centre hospital, the median duration of stay was x Angina
x Infections
8 (range 1-96) days, with 20% inpatient mortality. Clinical
x Arrhythmias
variables associated with an adverse prognosis include the x Poor compliance
presence of atrial fibrillation, poor exercise tolerance, electrolyte x Inadequate drug treatment
abnormalities, and the presence of coronary artery disease. x Iatrogenic factors
Angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitors were prescribed in x Inadequate discharge planning or follow up
only 51% of heart failure patients on discharge; after the first x Poor social support
diagnosis of heart failure, the average number of hospital
attendances (inpatient and outpatient) in the first 12 months
was 3.2 visits per patient, with an average of 6.0 general practice
consultations per patient. However, 44% of hospital attendances
(1.4 visits per patient) took place within three months of
diagnosis, 33% were at three to six months (1.0 visits per Admissions with heart failure over six months to a district
patient), and 23% were at 6-12 months (0.74 visits per patient). general hospital serving a multiracial population
These figures represent the collective burden of heart failure
on hospital practice. Indeed, about 200 000 people in the Presentation (%) Associated medical history (%)
United Kingdom require admission to hospital for heart failure
Pulmonary oedema (52) Ischaemic heart disease (54)
each year.
Congestive heart failure, Hypertension (34)
with fluid overload (32)
Myocardial infarction Valve disease (12); previous stroke (10)
Specialist nurse support and heart failure (9)
The important role of nurses in the management of heart Associated atrial Diabetes mellitus (19); peripheral vascular
failure has been relatively neglected in Britain. In the United fibrillation (29) disease (13); cardiomyopathy (1)
States the establishment of a nurse managed heart failure clinic Population of 300 000 (7451 admissions; 348 (5%) had heart failure (mean age
in South Carolina resulted in a reduction in readmissions of 4% 73 years)).
628 BMJ VOLUME 320 4 MARCH 2000
Downloaded from on 1 October 2006 Clinical review

and in length of hospital stay of almost two days. In another

North American study a comprehensive, multidisciplinary

Survival (%)
Home based intervention (n=49)
approach to heart failure management, including supervision Usual care (n=48)
by nurses, resulted in a significant (56%) reduction in 90
readmissions and hospital stay, with a trend towards reduced
mortality. Quality of life scores also improved in the
intervention group. A more dramatic result was obtained in a
study from Adelaide, Australia, where multidisciplinary
intervention resulted in a 20% reduction in mortality. 70
Nurse management of heart failure has implications for the
provision of care in patients with chronic heart failure, sharing 60
the increasing burden of heart failure. Specialist nurses would P= 0.049
provide advice, information, and support to patients with heart
failure and to their families and would ensure that the best 0 4 8 12 16 20 24 28 32 36 40 44 48 52 56 60 64 68 72 76 80
treatment is given. The potential benefits are substantial, with Week of study follow up
reduced hospital admission rates, improved quality of life, and
lower costs. Cumulative survival curves from the Adelaide nurse intervention study: 18
month follow up (see Stewart et al, key references box at end of article)

Economic considerations
With an increasingly elderly population, the prevalence of heart Economic cost of heart failure to NHS in UK, 1990-1
failure could have increased by as much as 70% by the year
2010. Heart failure currently accounts for 1-2% of total Total cost (£m) % of total cost
spending on health care in Europe and in the United States. In General practice visits 8.3 2.5
1993 in the United Kingdom, heart failure cost the NHS Referrals to hospital from 8.2 2.4
£360m a year; the figure now is probably closer to £600m, general practice
equivalent to 1-2% of the total NHS budget, and hospital Other outpatient attendances 31.8 9.4
admissions account for 60-70% of this expenditure. Admissions Inpatient stay 213.8 63.5
for heart failure have been increasing and are expected to
Diagnostic tests 45.6 13.5
increase further. Preventing disease progression, hence
Drugs 22.1 6.6
reducing the frequency and duration of admissions, is therefore
an important objective in the treatment of heart failure in the Surgery 7.2 2.1
future. Total 337.0 100

Heart failure is likely to continue to

Educating patient and family Promoting long term compliance become a major public health problem in
the coming decades; new and better
management strategies are necessary,
including risk factor interventions, for
Nurse specialising
in heart failure patients at risk of developing heart

Monitoring weight and blood tests

Implementing treatment algorithms
(renal chemistry and electrolytes)
Key references
Role of specialist nurse in management of patients with heart failure x Eccles M, Freemantle N, Mason J, for the North of England
Guideline Development Group. North of England evidence based
development project: guideline for angiotensin converting enzyme
The table on sensitivity and specificity is based on information in Cowie et inhibitors in primary care management of adults with symptomatic
al (Lancet 1997;350:1349-53) and McDonagh et al (Lancet 1998;351:9-13). heart failure. BMJ 1998;316:1369-75.
The table showing admissions with heart failure to a district general x Francis CM, Caruana L, Kearney P, Love M, Sutherland GR, Starkey
hospital is adapted with permission from Lip et al (Int J Clin Prac 1997;51: IR, et al. Open access echocardiography in the management of
223-7). The table showing the economic costs of heart failure is published heart failure in the community. BMJ 1995;310:634-6.
with permission from McMurray et al (Eur Heart J 1993;14(suppl):133). x Lip GYH, Sarwar S, Ahmed I, Lee S, Kapoor V, Child D, et al. A
survey of heart failure in general practice. The west Birmingham
R C Davis is clinical research fellow and F D R Hobbs is professor in heart failure project. Eur J Gen Pract 1997;3:85-9.
the department of primary care and general practice, University of x Remes J, Miettinen H, Reunanen A, Pyorala K. Validity of clinical
Birmingham. diagnosis of heart failure in primary health care. Eur Heart J
The ABC of heart failure is edited by C R Gibbs, M K Davies, and x Rich MW, Beckham V, Wittenberg C, Leven CL, Freedland KE,
G Y H Lip. CRG is research fellow and GYHL is consultant Carney RM, et al. A multidisciplinary intervention to prevent the
cardiologist and reader in medicine in the university department of readmission of elderly patients with congestive heart failure. N Engl
medicine and the department of cardiology, City Hospital, J Med 1995:333:1190-5.
Birmingham; MKD is consultant cardiologist in the department of x Stewart S, Vandenbroek AJ, Pearson S, Horowitz JD. Prolonged
cardiology, Selly Oak Hospital, Birmingham. The series will be beneficial effects of home-based intervention on unplanned
published as a book in the spring. readmissions and mortality among patients with congestive heart
failure. Arch Intern Med 1999;159:257-61.
BMJ 2000;320:626-9
BMJ VOLUME 320 4 MARCH 2000 629